Both mesothelioma and asbestosis are caused by people inhaling asbestos fibers, which are microscopic in size. However, although related, the two diseases are not the same thing. There are certainly similarities between the two but there are also significant differences in the pathophysiology and in the treatment. The biggest difference is that mesothelioma is a type of cancer, whereas asbestosis is not.

What Is Asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a respiratory disease that is chronic and often gets worse over time. It is caused by exposure to asbestos, although it is not clear exactly how much exposure is needed in order for the condition to develop. When someone breathes in fibers of asbestos, the lung starts to scar and become stiffer. As a result, it becomes more difficult to take a deep, full breath. Asbestos can often be confused with pulmonary fibrosis, because it has very similar symptoms. In fact, people are regularly wrongly diagnosed. Pulmonary fibrosis is effectively the same condition, but it is not caused by exposure to asbestos.

One of the key things to understand about asbestosis is that it isn’t a cancer. However, it does increase the chance of someone developing cancer later on in life, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Additionally, there is no cure for asbestosis and it has some very significant complications.

What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lungs and, rarely, the lining of the heart, abdomen, and testicles. Like asbestosis, it is caused by exposure to asbestos and it is not known how much exposure to the substance is required in order for the condition to develop. With mesothelioma, many small cancerous growths start to appear on the lungs, often taking over the entire tissue. In early stages, it only affects one side of the chest, but most people aren’t diagnosed until both sides have been affected.

The Development of Mesothelioma and Asbestosis

Exposure to asbestos is what causes both asbestosis and mesothelioma. As a result, those who have been exposed, which include U.S. Navy veterans, electricians, miners, construction workers, and railroad workers, are at the greatest risk of developing both these conditions. Those who are at risk of developing one of the conditions, are also at risk of developing the other, either separately, or together.

Unfortunately, both conditions have a very long latency period. While the condition can develop 10 years after exposure, it can also take as long as 60 years. One average, symptoms do not start appearing until some 40 years after exposure, and this is true for both mesothelioma and asbestosis.

The biggest difference between the two conditions, as stated, is that asbestosis is not a cancer. There is also a significant difference in the way they develop. When fibers lodge in the air sacs of the lungs, which are the alveoli, asbestosis starts to develop. If these fibers lodge in the lungs’ lining, however, mesothelioma develops.

Both conditions also become progressively worse. With asbestosis, the alveoli become stiffer over time and less able to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. With mesothelioma, increasingly large parts of the lungs’ lining become affected by cancerous growth.

There is one other significant difference between the two conditions, and that is the impact that smoking has on them. Smoking and asbestosis are very clearly correlated, mainly due to the fact that smoking also affects the alveoli. However, it is not clear that there is also a correlation between mesothelioma and smoking. That being said, those who have mesothelioma should also stop smoking immediately.

Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis – Symptoms

The symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma are often very similar. The main symptom, particularly in the early stages of both diseases, is shortness of breath. Additionally, it can take many years for the condition to develop after exposure to asbestos.

Interestingly, although the symptoms are very similar, these are the symptoms that are not indicative of cancer, but rather of the fact that there is something wrong that needs investigating. Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • A persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath

As the condition progresses, these symptoms start to get a lot worse. This is particularly true for those with mesothelioma, as this is a condition that does not respond well to treatment. Some people also experience clubbing of the nails and fingers, and this is more common in those with asbestosis. The symptom usually means that there is a problem with the lungs or the heart. It leads to the nails becoming softer, rounder, and wider. This is caused by a lack of oxygen flowing through the body. When the alveoli become scarred, breathing becomes more labored and this causes less oxygen to travel through the blood and this, in turn, leads to clubbing. People with mesothelioma may also develop clubbed fingers, but this is much rarer.

Another symptom that is more indicative of asbestosis is heart problem. This is because the lungs and the heart have a strong partnership and when one starts to malfunction, the other will often follow suit. As such, heart disease and high blood pressure are also commonly found in people with asbestosis. In fact, many physicians will look for the presence of heart problems in order to determine whether their patient is more likely to suffer from asbestosis or from mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis – Diagnosis

Mesothelioma and asbestosis are both diagnosed initially through imaging tests. An x-ray and a CT scan will generally be the first steps towards diagnosis. On these scans, problems on the lungs can easily be identified. If the condition is already somewhat advanced, the scans will show the difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma because they affect different parts of the lungs. If it is suspected that mesothelioma is present, then blood tests and a biopsy will usually be ordered. This will determine whether any of the cells are cancerous. It is possible for someone with asbestosis to also be put through a biopsy. This is to either rule out that mesothelioma is present, or to confirm that it is there together with the asbestosis.

Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis – Treatment

The treatment options for both conditions are very different. This is mainly due to the fact that mesothelioma is a cancer while asbestosis is not. However, palliative care is often required in both conditions, which helps patients to manage their symptoms and increase their quality of life. The palliative care options for both are very similar.

The similarities in treatment options for asbestosis and mesothelioma are mainly through pain relief medications. However, there are many more treatment options available for people with asbestosis, whereas there are few options for those with mesothelioma. Usually, asbestosis treatment is a lot less aggressive. The focus is on slowing down the disease’s progression and on helping to relieve symptoms and increase someone’s overall quality of life. Usually, they will be provided with:

  • Pulmonary medication
  • Inhalers (bronchodilators)
  • Breathing tanks
  • Antibiotics
  • Pain medication

Surgery, and particularly thoracentesis, is offered to both patients with asbestosis and mesothelioma. This procedure, which is minimally invasive, helps to drain fluid off the lungs. This enables patients to breathe easier and more comfortably. This is the only surgery, however, that is offered for both asbestosis and mesothelioma patients.

In most cases, mesothelioma is so advanced that it is difficult to offer successful surgery. Instead, patients will be offered radiotherapy and chemotherapy. If caught early enough, it is possible for the part of the lung that has been affected, to be removed. With very severe cases of asbestosis, a lung transplant may be offered. However, for someone to be considered a candidate, they usually also have to have lung cancer, and they must be a non-smoker.

Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis – Prognosis

The prognosis for mesothelioma is incredibly poor. This is in part due to the fact that it is often not discovered until it is in its very advanced stages. While asbestosis is also a life-limiting condition, the prognosis is much better, and many people can live with it for decades, so long as their condition is properly managed through medication. That is not to say, however, that asbestosis isn’t a lethal disease. Additionally, many people with asbestosis go on to develop mesothelioma.

The prognosis for someone with mesothelioma is between four and 12 months. Asbestosis, by contrast, affects different people in different ways. As such, there is no average prognosis for this condition. Those with asbestosis may live for decades, but their quality of life will be significantly reduced. According to the American Lung Association, there were around 3,211 deaths due to asbestosis in this country between 1999 and 2004. Hence, it is also a lethal condition.