Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma: A Simple Guide

A diagram of the lungs. The image details the difference between asbestosis on the left and pleural mesothelioma on the right.

Asbestos can cause serious illnesses, including pleural mesothelioma and asbestosis. So people with a history of asbestos exposure may want to watch for signs of these conditions. This task is best undertaken under the supervision of a doctor. But you can use the guide below to learn about the differences between these two conditions. This information may help alleviate stress and confusion if symptoms of either illness arise.

Key Differences Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma


Pleural Mesothelioma

Type of Condition Non-cancerous scarring Cancer
Affected Area The lung The lining surrounding the lung (the pleura)
Cause Asbestos exposure Asbestos exposure
Common Symptoms Dry cough, fatigue, finger clubbing (widening and rounding of fingertip), shortness of breath Dry cough, fatigue, loss of appetite, chest pain, shortness of breath, weight loss
Treatments Supportive care including oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery
Prognosis Often non-fatal 12 – 21 months with treatment

The table above summarizes key facts about mesothelioma and asbestosis. You can find more details on each fact in the sections below.

Asbestosis and Pleural Mesothelioma Are Fundamentally Different Conditions

Both illnesses are caused by exposure to carcinogenic asbestos, but they differ in which tissues they affect. For those with pleural mesothelioma, the asbestos fibers migrate to the lining around the lung and cause cancer there. For asbestosis patients, the mineral’s fibers irritate the lung tissue and cause scarring (pulmonary fibrosis).

So pleural mesothelioma is a cancer outside but next to the lung, and asbestosis is scarring within the lung. These differences also extend to the treatments for each condition.

Asbestosis and Mesothelioma Treatments Differ

Pleural mesothelioma generally requires more aggressive treatment than asbestosis. Common mesothelioma treatments include:

Without cancer-fighting treatment, pleural mesothelioma patients have a life expectancy of about 6 months. So these anti-tumor therapies are important tools for improving prognosis.

In contrast, doctors usually treat asbestosis with care aimed at improving quality of life (supportive care). This includes oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation. In severe cases, doctors may recommend a lung transplant. But experts say these cases have become less common in recent years.

Life Expectancies Vary Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

In many cases, asbestosis is not fatal. But asbestosis patients have higher risks of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma. So patients should still maintain regular checkups and watch for signs of more serious illnesses.

Prognosis varies quite a bit for asbestosis. Some patients only have mild symptoms, but others experience progression. Data indicates the condition remains mild or manageable for most patients. In one study, about a third of asbestosis patients died from the condition. This means the majority of asbestosis cases are not fatal.

The prognosis for pleural mesothelioma is quite different. With treatment, patients generally live 12 – 21 months, depending on the cancer stage and therapy approach. Without treatment, life expectancy is closer to 6 months. In other words, pleural mesothelioma is usually fatal.

Asbestosis and Pleural Mesothelioma Cause Similar Symptoms

Despite affecting different tissues, asbestosis and pleural mesothelioma share a few symptoms. Both conditions often cause coughing, fatigue and shortness of breath. But some symptoms are not shared between the two illnesses.

Differences in Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma Symptoms

Asbestosis may cause the following symptoms not typically linked to mesothelioma:

  • Crackling sound when taking a breath
  • Lung failure (respiratory failure)

Pleural mesothelioma may cause the following symptoms not typically linked to asbestosis:

What Does This Mean for People With a History of Asbestos Exposure?

People who worked in asbestos jobs or had other exposures should share this history with their doctors. Together, you can monitor for signs of asbestosis, malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers and lung diseases. Watching for symptoms of these conditions may help catch them early. And in the case of cancer, earlier detection often comes with a better prognosis.