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with Asbestos-Related Illness
A Self-Care Guide
Living With Asbestos-Related Illness—A Self-Care Guide
Table of Contents
About this Guide
This guide will help you understand the illnesses asbestos may cause and how to take care of
yourself if you have any of those conditions. Caregivers may also find the guide useful.
Asbestos Exposure and Health
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. It is made up of fibers that are so small that you cannot see them. Asbestos fibers may be released into the air when asbestos-containing material is disturbed during product use, demolition work, and building or home maintenance, repair, or remodeling. If asbestos fibers are in the air you breathe, you will get asbestos fibers in your lungs.
This is the main way that people are exposed to asbestos. Asbestos fibers may remain in the lungs for a lifetime. In some cases, the fibers might damage the lungs or the pleura covering the lungs, leading to illness and even death.
Some people who worked with asbestos years ago are now getting sick. They may have brought asbestos fibers home on their clothes, shoes, and bodies. People who lived in those same households could have been exposed to asbestos, too. Some household members may now be sick because of this exposure.
If you think you might have been exposed to asbestos:
• Tell your doctor. Your doctor may take an exposure history and recommend a thorough physical exam, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests. Your doctor may need a specialist who is experienced in reading x-rays for asbestos-related illness to help interpret the results. Other tests may be necessary.
• Quit smoking. If you are a smoker, quit smoking. Smoking combined with asbestos exposure greatly increases the risk of getting lung cancer.
• Get regular influenza (flu) and pneumonia shots. Regular shots help reduce the chance of lung infections.
Being exposed to asbestos does not mean that you will develop health problems! Many things need to be considered when evaluating whether you are at risk for health problems from asbestos exposure. A doctor can help you find out if you have health problems from asbestos exposure.
1-888-42-ATSDR Living With Asbestos-Related Illness—A Self-Care Guide Asbestos-Related Illnesses Asbestos has been widely used in the United States; nearly everyone has been exposed to asbestos at some time in his or her life. However, most people who become sick from asbestos are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and are exposed more often.
Most asbestos fibers that are inhaled are breathed out, but some can become lodged in the lungs and remain there throughout life. Because asbestos fibers attach to the membranes that line the chest cavity and cover the lungs, they cannot be coughed out or washed out. Fibers can gather and cause scarring and inflammation. As the lung tissue scars and thickens, breathing becomes more difficult.
Most people do not show any signs or symptoms of asbestos-related disease for 10 to 20 years or more after exposure. The most common asbestos-related illnesses are lung cancer, mesothelioma,
Lung cancer • Lung cancer is a malignant tumor that invades and obstructs the lung’s air passages.
Cigarette smoking greatly increases the likelihood of a person developing lung cancer as the result of asbestos exposure.
Signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:
Other symptoms can include weight loss, fever, chills, and night sweats. People who develop these symptoms do not necessarily have lung cancer, but they should consult
a physician for advice. Most cases of lung cancer in workers occurred 15 years or more after the person was first exposed to asbestos.
Mesothelioma • Mesothelioma is a very rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen. Most mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos and are diagnosed 30 years or more after the first exposure. By the time a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is shortness of breath or trouble breathing ►
Asbestosis • Asbestosis is a serious, progressive, long-term disease that causes scarring of the lungs.
This scarring makes it hard for lungs to get oxygen into the blood. It restricts breathing and leads to smaller lung volume. Asbestosis is not a cancer.
Signs and symptoms of asbestosis include:
shortness of breath (the primary symptom) ►
Asbestosis generally progresses slowly, but the rate can vary greatly from one patient to another. Breathing can become more difficult as the symptoms progress over time. Lung tissues and the lining of the chest wall can change from the thinness and stretchiness of a balloon to the thickness and hardness of an orange peel.
People with asbestosis may require aggressive medical care, including frequent use of antibiotics when warranted, for any respiratory infection. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath becomes worse. After awhile, a person may require supplemental oxygen to carry out daily activities. The end result of the disease is lung and heart failure.
1-888-42-ATSDR Living With Asbestos-Related Illness—A Self-Care Guide Treating Asbestos-Related Illness A doctor can help manage asbestos-related symptoms, but no cure is available. Treatment involves preventing further complications of the disease and treating its symptoms.
For information about treating asbestos-related cancer illnesses, contact the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service. Their toll free number is 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422Taking Care of Yourself If you have an asbestos-related disease, the following self-care tips and techniques will help you take
care of yourself and live more comfortably:
Food, Rest, and Exercise • Taking care of your body will help you breath easier:
► Eat healthy foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables. Good eating habits help maintain muscle mass and body functions.
Limit your salt intake.
• Get flu and pneumonia shots every year (offered between September and December).
• To protect your health, caregivers and all household members also should get flu and pneumonia shots every year.
Keeping a diary • Keep a diary of when you have trouble breathing. Note how often you have trouble, how bad it is, and what you were doing that may have triggered the trouble. The diary will help you recognize and avoid events that trigger breathing trouble.
Avoiding Bad Air • When air pollution and pollen counts are high, stay inside. An air-filtering machine can improve the indoor air quality.
• Avoid breathing pollutants that can trigger shortness of breath. This includes traffic fumes, smog, aerosol sprays, and chemical vapors (from products such as paint, kerosene, and cleaning agents).
• In cold weather, breathe through your nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf.
Productive Coughing • People with chronic lung diseases are more at risk for respiratory infections because their lungs are already damaged. One of the most important preventive measures is a “productive” cough. This is a cough that is moist and brings up mucus from the lungs and air passageways. This helps clear the air passages.
An unproductive cough reduces airflow and causes respiratory muscle fatigue. If mucus and other foreign bodies remain in the respiratory tract, they can pool in the airways. This makes it difficult to expel bacteria and increases the risk of infection.
Very dry air increases shortness of breath and thickens the mucus in your lungs. Your doctor may recommend a humidifier, breathing therapies, and chest percussion (pounding or clapping the chest to loosen secretions). These steps loosen and thin out bronchial secretions, allowing them to be expelled by the cough.
Avoiding Smoke • Stay away from smoke and smokers.
• If you smoke, now is a good time to quit. Smoking can increase the rate at which a disease gets worse. It can also increase the risk of lung cancer. Even if you have been smoking for years—or you already have lung disease—quitting smoking now will greatly improve your health. Your blood vessels will relax, allowing the blood to flow normally;
your heart will not have to work as hard. Your lung tissue will become healthier and you will breathe easier.
• If you smoke, a structured stop smoking program may help you kick the habit. The use of nicotine patches and antidepressants along with counseling may also be helpful.
1-888-42-ATSDR Living With Asbestos-Related Illness—A Self-Care Guide Taking Care of Yourself (cont.) Respiratory Therapies • Participate in respiratory therapies (such as bronchial drainage) as recommended by your doctor. Your doctor might recommend using an ultrasonic mist humidifier to help clear secretions from your lungs.
• You might also learn postural drainage; the positioning of a person to drain and remove secretions from particular areas of the lungs.
• Clean and maintain respiratory therapy devices to limit their risk of causing infection.
Though you may need proper training to do that, the following are general recommendations:
► Clean all reusable respiratory therapy equipment twice a week. That includes ventilator circuitry, nebulizers, aerosol tubing, and peak flow meters. Consult your provider about cleansing routines for respiratory equipment.
► Completely air dry all cleaned devices before putting them back together.
Moisture trapped in the devices can allow bacteria, viruses, and fungi to grow.
► All ventilator filters should be cleaned and changed as often as the manufacturer recommends.
• Breathing techniques can help you control your respiratory rate and breathing pattern.
That will help you breathe easier and more efficiently, and make you feel like enough air is getting into your lungs. Breathing techniques and correct posture also can improve the function of respiratory muscles and effectiveness of coughs.
• You can also do exercises to help you breathe more easily. Practice the exercises daily so that when shortness of breath occurs, you will do them naturally and not panic. Some of
the exercises are the following:
► Pursed-lip breathing: Pursed-lip breathing will slow down your breathing so that it is more efficient (breathing fast only worsens shortness of breath). You can do this kind of breathing anywhere.
□ Breathe in slowly through your nose. Hold your breath for 3 seconds.
□ Purse your lips as if you are going to whistle.
□ Breathe out slowly through your pursed lips for 6 seconds.
• If you are interested in pulmonary rehabilitation, ask your doctor to help you design a program that will work for you.
Your Doctor is Your Health Partner
Work with your doctor to help manage asbestos-related syptoms:
• Follow your doctor’s instructions on taking your medicines, oxygen therapy, and chest physiotherapy.
• Make an effort to prevent infection.
• Do not try to treat yourself. Over-the-counter cold remedies might worsen the problem.
Do not use them unless your doctor says it is okay.
• Get regular chest x-rays to help screen for cancers associated with asbestos exposure.
• Call your doctor if any of the following signs occur:
Travel Living with asbestos-related illness should not keep you from traveling. This section will help you understand how to take care of yourself during travel.
Oxygen Use If your doctor has prescribed oxygen, you will have a liquid oxygen unit, an oxygen tank, or an oxygen concentrator. You will breathe the oxygen through either a mask or nasal cannulae (two short prongs that fit just inside your nostrils). The system will also have a humidifier to warm and moisten the oxygen.