Does Asbestos Exposure Cause Immediate Symptoms?

Asbestos exposure does not cause immediate symptoms in most patients.  In general, it takes at least 5 years to manifest symptoms—and in many cases, symptoms will not become apparent until decades after exposure.

Asbestos fibers can be acutely irritating to the lungs and respiratory system, and inhalation asbestos fibers can trigger reactions in individuals with pre-existing conditions.  For example, inhalation of asbestos fibers can trigger an asthma attack in a patient who already had the condition.  However, it is important to note that asbestos did not cause the patient’s asthma in this example, but rather aggravated an already existing disease.

The most common (and most dangerous) conditions associated with asbestos exposure develop due to chronic exposure to asbestos, usually in heavy quantities over a long period of time.  The  period of time between being exposed to a substance like asbestos and manifesting symptoms of these diseases (latency period) varies based on quantity and duration of exposure, pre-existing or co-morbid conditions, and other extenuating factors.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is the most common disease associated with asbestos exposure.  Workers exposed to high levels of asbestos will inhale these fibers, which subsequently become embedded in the lung tissue, as well as the tissue that lines the lungs and the abdomen (mesothelium).  The body has no way to eliminate embedded fibers, and over time the buildup of asbestos fibers will result in thickening of the lining of the lungs and chest cavity, called ‘fibrosis.’

Symptoms of asbestosis (also known as ‘clinical manifestations’) take on average 20-40 years to manifest in exposed patients.  These symptoms include:

  • Shortening of breath
  • A dry, persistent cough
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Clubbing of the fingers and toes
  • Chest tightness or pain

Lung Cancers

Asbestosis is often linked with certain types of lung cancers, including mesothelioma.  38% of asbestosis patients die of asbestos-associated lung cancer, and 9% die of mesothelioma.

Lung Carcinoma (cancer) has a latency period of roughly 20-30 years, and symptoms manifest as coughing, wheezing, coughing up blood (hemoptysis), and difficult or labored breathing (dyspnea).

Mesothelioma has a latency period of 10-57 years, with an average of 30-40 years.  The most common symptom is chest pain.