Pleural Thickening Symptoms


It can take many years for the devastating effects of prolonged asbestos exposure to become evident. One of the conditions that causes breathing difficulty mostly due to asbestos exposure is pleural thickening. To diagnose the condition a doctor will use an imaging test such as an MRI or a CT scan, and may also take a biopsy of the lung tissue.

Radiologist viewing CT scan of lungs with thickening.
Radiologist viewing CT scan of lungs with thickening. (Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images)


The elastic lining of the lungs is referred to as the pleura. Pleural thickening is when scar tissue begins to form in the pleura making it less elastic which makes breathing difficult. The most common form of pleural thickening occurs when asbestos fibers get into the lungs and scar tissue begins to form around the asbestos fibers as they cut into the pleura. According to, pleural thickening is considered to be a life threatening condition. Pleural thickening is one part of the asbestos-based lung cancer known as mesothelioma.

Asbestos removal team at industrial site
Asbestos removal team at industrial site (Image: Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)


Pleural thickening can take a while to show symptoms, and in some cases it can also take a long time to show up in a standard physical. Unless the doctor is looking for pleural thickening, they will probably not find it. That is what makes pleural thickening so dangerous. By the time it can be diagnosed, it is already in its late stages and there may be no way to treat it. Some of the early symptoms of pleural thickening include difficulty breathing immediately after physical activity and a slight pain in the chest. In most cases, the initial symptoms of pleural thickening are difficult to detect even for the person experiencing them.

Chemotherapy medication being mixed by pharmacist
Chemotherapy medication being mixed by pharmacist (Image: Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images)


There are other conditions, such as congestive heart conditions, that can cause pleural thickening. But the primary cause of the condition remains asbestos exposure. estimates that it can take as long as 15 years after the initial exposure to asbestos for pleural thickening to start to show symptoms. The more advanced symptoms of pleural thickening include extreme difficulty breathing even when at rest, chronic chest pain and a chronic cough.

Asbestos warning on equipment
Asbestos warning on equipment (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)


In most cases, by the time symptoms of pleural thickening trigger a diagnosis the condition cannot be treated. Doctors will focus on relieving the symptoms of pleural thickening such as the chest pain and the inability to breathe. From time to time the lungs may fill with fluid and the doctor may recommend surgery to relieve the pressure caused by the fluid, but there is no medication or surgery that can control the spreading of the effects of pleural thickening once it has advanced to the point of creating noticeable symptoms. If pleural thickening is caught early enough it may be treated by surgery. Doctors will remove any infected lung tissue, and this may mean the removal of an entire lung.

Doctors working on patient
Doctors working on patient (Image: Jochen Sand/Digital Vision/Getty Images)


Some of the other conditions that may cause pleural thickening are a build-up of pus in the pleura known as empyema, and tuberculosis. Contracting pleural thickening is not always a sign of asbestos exposure.

X-rays of tuberculosis affecting a patient's lungs
X-rays of tuberculosis affecting a patient's lungs (Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

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