Occupational lung disease

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals. They were popular in building products from 1940-1987 for their insulative properties. In Australia, around 1 in 3 homes contain asbestos products which are most commonly found in roofing, walls, and vinyl, carpet and tile underlay. The use of asbestos containing materials was banned in Australia in 2003 after it was discovered that exposure to asbestos fibres can cause life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis.

What is asbestosis

Asbestosis is caused by breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, generally over long periods of time. The fibres lodge in the lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring in the lungs. Asbestosis affects everyone differently. Some people can live a long time with asbestosis, but for others, the disease may progress at a faster rate. If you have asbestosis, you are at an increased risk of lung cancer.


Symptoms do not usually develop until many years after continued exposure to asbestos, in some cases up to 10 to 30 years after exposure has occurred. Common symptoms may include the following.

Shortness of breath



Clubbing (swelling) of the fingers

Weight loss (in the late stages)


It’s important to discuss your medical and occupational history with your GP, including symptoms (if relevant) and any previous or current exposure to hazardous agents. Your GP will likely refer you to a specialist doctor. Following initial discussion with your GP and/or specialist doctor, you may undergo a series of tests:

Physical examination

Lung-function (breathing) tests

Chest x-ray

Chest CT scan

Lung biopsy


Although there is currently no cure for asbestosis, there are management strategies that may help reduce symptoms. Research in this area is ongoing and investigating new medications.


Inhaled medications like relievers help open up the airways and make breathing easier, although they are not a standard treatment for asbestosis. Newer treatments, such as anti-fibrotic agents, are being trialed to manage asbestosis. They are intended to slow the rate of progression of the scarring in the lungs and preserve lung function. Pain relief or antibiotics may be recommended in certain situations, such as for chest pain or infection, however they are not a regular treatment for asbestosis.

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy may be prescribed by your doctor if you have low blood oxygen levels. Read more about oxygen therapy to manage lung conditions here.
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Surgery is not a usual treatment for asbestosis but may be needed for complications such as pleural effusion (fluid on the lungs) or in cases of very severe disease.