It has always been a particularly cruel legacy of asbestos exposure that victims fail to recognise the first signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms until the disease has reached a late stage in development.

This is entirely to be expected. It has long been known that a period of up to 50 years or more may elapse from an initial exposure and breathing in of the invisible fibre particles until the emergence of symptoms.

From before the 1940s until at least the 1980s, in the overwhelming majority of asbestosis claim cases, the lack of asbestos awareness or information provided meant that many thousands of victims simply did not know of the fatal health risks of working with asbestos containing materials. Many others, tragically, were exposed to asbestos without even knowing of its existence within the fabric of the building where they worked, whether a public or commercial building, such as a school, nursery, hospital, office or factory.

Confused by early symptoms…

In a further cruel twist, elderly victims can all too easily be confused by early symptoms, and it is not unknown for a doctor to also mistakenly diagnose another common ailment, such as influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia, or another respiratory disease. If there has been a long history of cigarette smoking, the appearance of a symptom, such as pleural effusion may also not be recognised as an early symptom of pleural mesothelioma.

Recognising the early warning signs of asbestosis disease is not easy. Invariably, the onset is hardly noticeable and is followed by a slow, gradual build-up in the number and severity of symptoms.

Most common symptoms…

The earliest stage is so mild it’s ‘put down’ to feeling ‘unwell’ or being vaguely ‘rundown’ with constant tiredness or feeling drained, perhaps due to an unspecified common or seasonal illness. Others suspect their poor fitness as a result of a lack of regular exercise and having ‘put on a few pounds’ or if the individual is also a smoker, perhaps a ‘wheezing sound’ can also sometimes be heard.

The first tangible symptom is ‘shortness of breath after exertion or exercise’. Also known as “dyspnoea” it is the most common asbestosis symptom, and most noticeable when a person is exercising or is performing a light activity. The symptom is caused by the build-up of scar tissue, which stiffens the lungs and requires more physical effort to force lung expansion and take in oxygen.

However, a more acute early warning is the appearance of the ‘dry cough’, where there is prolonged periods of dry coughing when there is no other obvious  signs of illness, such as a high temperature caused by fever or infection.

Frequency of symptoms…

Early symptoms are now more persistent, with shortness of breath experienced more frequently, sometimes even when resting.

A feeling of ‘tightness’ or a recurring chest pain is now evident, often felt as an inability to ‘catch the breath’ or for lungs to fully fill with air. A sign that oxygen is no longer being exchanged efficiently in the bloodstream is the appearance of pitted, uneven fingernails or ‘clubbed’ fingers, a deformity in which the fingertips become expanded and round.

Advanced stage symptoms…

At the most advanced stages of asbestosis symptoms, there can be increased severe chest pain, interrupted sleep patterns and the need to sleep without being fully reclined to make breathing easier. Additional severe symptoms may take the form of swelling of the hands, feet and ankles, coughing up blood or fluid from the lungs and recurring respiratory infections.

Although there is currently no cure for asbestosis, in extreme cases, hospitalisation will be strongly advised so symptoms can be treated to make the patient more comfortable. A doctor may prescribe medications to help improve lung function or oxygen CT Scan to assist respiration. If there is an excessive build-up of scar tissue in the lungs, surgery may be necessary to bring the patient relief.

The continuing tragedy of asbestos exposure for most of the twentieth century has led to the number of asbestosis claim cases having more than doubled from 574 in 2007 to 1,164 in 2010,  and in 2011, the number of newly reported assessments of asbestosis reached 725 (IIDB – Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit).