The shortness of breath caused by asbestos exposure wrongly attributed to congestive heart failure (CHF)

Treven Pyles

By Treven Pyles

Posted on December 09th, 2020

Because CHF and asbestos-related lung disease closely resemble each other in symptoms, the diagnosis is extremely challenging, and sometimes doctors fail to make the connection to asbestos exposure. Misdiagnosis can firmly obstruct your prognosis and also affect the financial compensation you can recover.

During the last century, many industrial workers - insulators, pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, and metalsmiths among many others - have been exposed to asbestos while carrying out a number of duties related to their job functions. Today, while asbestos has been replaced by other insulation materials, the toxic substance continues to impact thousands of former industrial workers as illnesses associated with asbestos exposure - such as lung cancer and mesothelioma - often do not become evident for 10 to 40 years after the initial exposure.

Veterans who served in the military prior to regulatory actions taken in the 1970s that restricted the use of asbestos may have endured long-term exposure while performing their everyday duties on the job including shipbuilding, welding, removal of asbestos materials due to renovation, repairs, or demolition, and various other trades. Even though the health risks posed by breathing asbestos fibers are well-known, as exposure to asbestos becomes less frequent the symptoms may be misdiagnosed more often.

Because asbestosis causes decreased oxygen levels in the blood, it is often incorrectly diagnosed as CHF

If you suffered long-term exposure to asbestos, you may be at risk of developing asbestosis, a chronic respiratory disease caused when microscopic thread-like asbestos fibers are breathed into the lungs and accumulate with repeated exposure causing irritation and scarring of the tissue. If many fibers are inhaled over a long period of time, the cumulative scarring of alveoli inhibits their ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. The result is that oxygen exchange is diminished, your lung capacity diminishes, and you feel increasingly short of breath. Also, because the lungs become stiff, like a dried sponge, it takes a great deal of muscular effort to expand during inhalation.

Clubbing of the fingers, in which the fingertips spread out and become rounder than normal, is a sign of more severe asbestosis and is associated with higher mortality and the likelihood of disease progression. Because digital clubbing is often a sign of low oxygen in the blood and can be linked to several heart diseases - namely, cyanotic heart diseases, infective endocarditis, and CHF, there could be delays or even misdiagnosis of asbestosis. Most differential diagnoses include:

  • a detailed occupational history to help determine job type and potential exposures
  • physical examination
  • imaging tests

While there is no cure for asbestosis, patients whose disease is diagnosed in its early stages have better outcomes. However, it can be difficult for physicians to correctly diagnose the issue unless they understand that the patient has been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. It is important to note that former industrial workers or veterans who have asbestosis are not eligible for compensation, as only some cancers have a strong association with asbestos exposure.

Pericardial mesothelioma - an extremely rare form of asbestos-related cancer - may also be misdiagnosed as CHF

In addition to asbestosis, exposure to airborne asbestos fibers increases the risk of pericardial mesothelioma - a rare and aggressive malignancy that develops in the pericardium, the membrane that lines the heart. Once inhaled, some of the asbestos fibers can reach the pericardium - the delicate membrane that surrounds and protects the heart. This causes chest pain, heart murmurs, irregular heart rhythm, anemia, weight loss, fatigue, and circulatory issues.

Reduced lung function among individuals with a history of asbestos exposure could lead to episodes of hypoxemia - an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood - which can be caused by a variety of conditions including congestive heart failure and pericardial mesothelioma.

If you have been exposed to asbestos through work, and experience symptoms such as:

  • shortness of breath and crackling sound
  • persistent dry coughing
  • tightness and pain in the chest
  • loss of weight, appetite, and fatigue

consult a doctor immediately, and describe your symptoms and the exposure scenario. He/she should take a careful exposure history and should find out from you how asbestos was used or disturbed on various jobs.

The importance of early and accurate diagnosis of pulmonary abnormalities in asbestos-exposed workers and veterans

A chest radiograph is the principal method of detecting asbestosis and pleural scarring and is still used in the great majority of screening programs.

It is recommended that asbestos-exposed workers be screened at least annually by a physician with expertise in the evaluation and management of asbestos-related lung diseases, especially if 10 years or more have elapsed since the worker's first exposure to asbestos.

For current or former smokers with a history of exposure to asbestos, an examination every six months may be advisable.

Misdiagnosis leads to incorrect treatment, delayed treatment, or no treatment at all, therefore, anyone with a history of asbestos exposure should get a second, even third opinion from a specialist to properly identify and treat their illness. Having a correct diagnosis is of the utmost importance when it comes to applying for compensation, as the sum of money asbestos victims are eligible for depends primarily on their diagnosis.

Legal assistance for individuals with asbestos-related cancer diagnoses

If you are a former industrial worker or a military veteran, you are likely to have been exposed to asbestos while performing your everyday duties, and now it is important to regularly monitor your health through regular doctor visits to detect any asbestos-related illness as early as possible.

For the past 30 years, our team of experts has empathetically witnessed the terrible effects asbestos exposure has had on our clients and compassionately dedicated time and effort to ensure financial compensation for victims and their families.