What Are Pleural Plaques on Lungs?
Inside your chest area, there is a two-layered membrane. One layer surrounds your lung and the other lines your rib cage. This membrane is known as the pleura. The pleura often becomes thickened, either in full or in certain parts. This thickening is caused by chalky material building up. It is particularly common in people who have had asbestos exposure. The chalky, thick areas are known as ‘pleural plaques’.
Many people have developed a huge fear of asbestos and quite rightly so. It is a mineral that, if left undisturbed, provides various industries with a range of benefits. However, we now know that if it is disturbed, people can ingest or inhale the fibers and these can lead to significant health problems, some of which are lethal. As such, when people develop pleural plaques, they often start to worry about having one of these serious conditions, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer. However, having pleural plaques does not automatically mean:
- That you will automatically become seriously ill
- That you already suffer from a serious illness
- That you are likely to develop a serious illness
Yes, asbestos exposure means you are at increased risk of developing serious illnesses. However, as of now, there is no proven link between pleural plaques and lung cancer, mesothelioma, or asbestosis. Essentially, pleural plaques are not a pre-malignant tumor, nor are they a form of asbestosis.
What Are Pleural Plaques?
A pleural plaque is a very common indicator of asbestos exposure. Usually, they start to appear between 20 and 30 years after exposure took place. They can calcify, which can, in some cases, make them uncomfortable. Fortunately, they don’t cause health problems themselves. They are benign, non-cancerous developments and can’t become cancerous either. Usually, they are found in the parietal pleura, which is the lining of the membrane that is found inside the rib cage. The visceral pleura, the other part of the membrane lining the lung, can also be affected. In some cases, they appear on the diaphragm, which is the muscle you need in order to breathe properly.
How the Plaques Are Formed
If you are exposed to asbestos and you breathe in the fiber, they settle inside the lungs’ lining, irritating the tissue. This can lead to pleural plaques, although it is not clear how that happens. There are different theories in terms of how it happens, with one suggesting that the link is with pleural macrophages. Essentially, the idea is that the fibers lead to an immune response and this triggers pleural macrophages (lung cells) to activate. This leads to fibrosis, which means that healthy, normal cells are replaced with collagen fiber scar tissue.
As the fibrotic scar tissue starts to accumulate, pleural plaques are formed. Some recent research has shown that people with pleural plaques do experience inhibited lung function, reducing their ability to breathe. However, this appears to only happen if the plaques calcify, which happens in 5% to 15% of cases. It should be noted that even when they are calcified, pleural plaques are not an indication of mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer. They can, however, lead to pleural thickening, which can further decrease overall lung function.
Symptoms of Pleural Plaques
People who have pleural plaques are almost always asymptomatic. You can live a normal, healthy life with them, not experiencing any problems. Most people have them for many years and never realize it, until they show up in different tests. Because of this, if you do suddenly start to experience symptoms such as pain, persistent coughs, or breathlessness, you should not ignore these symptoms. They are likely to be indicative of a different condition, which may need treatment.
Prevalence of Pleural Plaques
The European Respiratory Journal recently reported on two studies designed to determine the prevalence of pleural plaques. In the first study, 5,545 workers in France who had asbestos exposure were examined. Of them, 15.9% developed pleural plaques. The second study looked at 1,011 workers, and 46.9% had a diagnosis. Both studies showed a latency period of around 40 years.
Pleural Plaques Diagnosis
If you know that were at some point exposed to asbestos, but you don’t suffer from pain or chest problems, there is no need for you to have a CT scan or x-ray. In fact, the risk of exposure to radioactive materials from CT scan and x-ray is larger than the risk of living a life with undiagnosed pleural plaques. However, if you have had asbestos exposure, it is possible that you will be offered scans and x-rays to check if you have an asbestos-related illness, at which point pleural plaques may be diagnosed as well.
Pleural Plaques Treatment
Pleural plaques do not require any form of treatment. It is important to stop smoking, however, because smoking will increase your chances of developing serious conditions like lung cancer or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Because these plaques aren’t cancerous, and only very few experience any detrimental effect in terms of how well they can breathe, no treatment is usually offered, not in the least because most don’t even know they have them.
While it is certainly true that you are not at an increased risk of developing a serious illness related to asbestos exposure, you do have to make sure your physician is aware of your symptoms if you experience any. If you notice that you cough up blood, experience chest pain, have a persistent cough, or have breathlessness, you have to make sure that you are tested. Additionally, if you are one of the rare people who have noticeably impaired breathing capacity due to pleural plaques, you may need some form of treatment in order to regain your usual quality of life.
Get Immediate Help Now
If you or someone you love has been exposed to asbestos and now face a condition such as Mesothelioma or lung cancer, contact us immediately to speak with a specialist who will help guide you through your options, both legally from a compensation standpoint and medically should you have questions.