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Be aware of the signs of asbestos exposure

The problem with asbestos exposure is that it can take decades before you are aware of the damage it may have caused.

Remember, it usually takes long-term exposure to asbestos to create a problem and even then, only about 20 percent develop a serious problem. But if you worked with asbestos and are worried you may have asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer, there are steps you can take.

Signs of asbestos exposure

There are no signs of asbestos exposure before a corresponding disease develops. Asbestos-related diseases rarely produce noticeable symptoms in the early stages of development.

However, if you have a history of heavy asbestos exposure, screening for mesothelioma can save your life. While there's no one screen for mesothelioma, a battery of tests can point doctors into the right direction.

While asbestos most commonly affects the lungs, problems do occur in the throat, stomach and colon.

The first symptoms are the result of a pleural plaque in the lungs. This usually occurs 10 to 30 years after exposure to asbestos. Symptoms in the lungs include:

  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Respiratory complications
  • Crackling sound when breathing
  • Pleural effusion, pleural plaques, pleural thickening and asbestosis

Non-lung symptoms include:

  • Hernia
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Abdominal swelling and distention
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Clubbed fingers

There are proactive steps you can take if you think you were exposed to asbestos:

  • Get cancer screenings
  • Monitor your health for symptoms of asbestos-related diseases
  • Don't smoke, eat well, exercise often and get enough sleep
  • Get flu and pneumonia vaccines

Non-cancerous outcomes

Sometimes, noncancerous conditions develop before asbestos cancers.

Asbestosis is a noncancerous progressive lung disease that leads to severe lung dysfunction. A 2017 study found no clear trend between the incidence of asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Pleural thickening is a noncancerous condition in which extensive scarring thickens the lining of the lungs. The condition may cause chest pain and breathing difficulty. It does not run the risk of turning cancerous, but it may develop before some cases of mesothelioma.

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