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Mesothelioma vs Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques and mesothelioma are both caused by exposure to asbestos. However, these two asbestos diseases are more different than alike. People with pleural plaques often experience no symptoms and need no treatment. Because of their past asbestos exposure, they risk developing other asbestos diseases, including lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma.

Fact-Checked and Updated by: Jenna Tozzi, RN

Last updated:

Mesothelioma vs Pleural Plaques Overview

Mesothelioma and pleural plaques are two different asbestos-related diseases. Even though they are both caused by asbestos fibers, they have vastly different prognoses.

Pleural plaques are chalk-like accumulations of collagen that form in the lining of the lungs (pleura). They are non-cancerous and do not require treatment.

Did You Know?

Pleural plaques are the most common asbestos-related disease.

In contrast, malignant mesothelioma is a rare and incurable cancer that usually develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is 12-21 months with treatment.

People with mesothelioma usually experience symptoms that mimic the flu, like fever, fatigue, and fluid buildup in the chest (pleural effusions).

In many cases, people with pleural plaques do not have any symptoms.

Life after a mesothelioma diagnosis can be scary, but there is hope. In our Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide, learn about patients who survived for years or decades.

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What Are Pleural Plaques?

When people swallow or inhale microscopic asbestos fibers, the body’s immune system tries to eliminate them. Unfortunately, asbestos fibers can never be broken down or removed. Pleural plaques are a physical manifestation of the body’s attempt to isolate these asbestos fibers.

Pleural plaques are an accumulation of collagen in the lining of the lungs.

They can develop in:

  1. The parietal pleura which lines the diaphragm and chest wall. Most pleural plaques form here.
  2. The visceral pleura which lines the inside of the lungs. Pleural plaques are rare in this part of the pleura.

Over time, pleural thickening, calcification, and fibrosis (hardening of tissue) can occur.

Pleural plaque is a type of pleural disease but not a form of cancer. The presence of pleural plaques does not mean that patients have or will go on to get a more serious pulmonary disease.

However, people with pleural plaques risk developing other asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, because of their prior asbestos exposure.

Pleural Plaques Symptoms

Most people with pleural plaques do not have any physical symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they are usually mild.

Symptoms of pleural plaques can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Slightly diminished lung function

It is important to note that some people diagnosed with pleural plaques can experience physical and emotional struggles. They may experience anxiety and other psychological symptoms.

Scientific evidence has not shown that having pleural plaques is connected to developing other, more serious lung conditions. However, people exposed to asbestos are more likely to develop other asbestos diseases.

These asbestos diseases include:

Until told otherwise by medical professionals, patients shouldn’t worry about that possibility when they are diagnosed with pleural plaques.

Need help finding a mesothelioma specialist near you? Use our Free Doctor Match right now.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma vs Pleural Plaques

A mesothelioma diagnosis can be confused with lung cancer, as both diseases have similar symptoms. A history of asbestos exposure is a red flag for doctors to look for signs of mesothelioma. Most often, doctors identify mesothelioma because of other problems the disease causes.

Early warning signs of mesothelioma include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away
  • Blood in mucus that is coughed up from the lungs
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the face or neck veins
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Unexplained loss of appetite or weight loss

During patient examinations, doctors review a patient’s genetics, medical history, and risk factors to figure out if more tests should be ordered and deciphered by specialists.

Imaging tests for a mesothelioma diagnosis include:

  • Bone scans
  • High-resolution computed tomography (CT/CAT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • X-rays

Other lab tests, including biopsies and blood tests, take cells from the lung to be examined under a microscope. Mesothelioma doctors look for abnormalities on all scans and tests to rule out the possibility of lung cancer if there is a history of asbestos exposure.

Diagnosing Pleural Plaques

Simple exposure to asbestos does not mean mesothelioma or other serious diseases should be the assumed diagnosis. Pleural plaques, for example, also usually occur when patients have been exposed to asbestos.

Diagnosis of pleural plaques generally happens after a latency period of 20-30 years after initial asbestos exposure. Its severity is usually related to how long the patient was exposed to asbestos.

Patients without chest problems normally don’t need a CT scan or chest X-ray unless a doctor recommends it. In most cases, a CT scan or X-ray exposure is riskier than being diagnosed with pleural plaques.

Treating Mesothelioma vs Pleural Plaques

Most often, mesothelioma patients undergo more than one form of mesothelioma treatment.

Treatments are based on the cancer stage, lung function, a person’s overall health, and specific traits of the subtype of mesothelioma. These factors also determine the treatment order or combination provided to patients.

Options for mesothelioma treatment include:

  • ChemotherapyCirculating anti-cancer drugs through the bloodstream kills off mesothelioma cells in its path.
  • Radiation: Radiation therapy can target mesothelioma tumors with high-powered rays, shrinking them and killing off cells.
  • Palliative treatments: Therapies that improve quality of life by easing symptoms are considered palliative treatments for mesothelioma.
  • Surgery: Surgeons can physically resect (remove) mesothelioma tumors.

See which treatments helped other patients beat mesothelioma or improved their life spans in our Free Survivors Guide.

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Pleural Plaques Treatment

Pleural plaques do not require follow-up treatment. However, some patients’ psychological effects of being diagnosed should be treated.

After being diagnosed with pleural plaques, you or a loved one might experience anxiety or symptoms of stress from the knowledge of the diagnosis. Please talk to your doctor for help dealing with this.

Additionally, smokers with pleural plaques should seek help quitting to reduce the risk of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

Getting a Second Opinion on Mesothelioma vs Pleural Plaques

A second opinion on pleural plaques or mesothelioma may be useful in certain cases. Pleural plaque is a non-life-threatening disease; treatment is unnecessary, but a second opinion may help patients find peace of mind. But mesothelioma is much more dangerous.

The Mesothelioma Hope team can help you find doctors who can offer a second opinion if you have mesothelioma. If you do have this cancer and not pleural plaques, our team can connect you with top treatments and financial aid needed to pay for them.

It’s possible to become a survivor after a mesothelioma diagnosis. See how in our Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide.

Mesothelioma vs Pleural Plaques FAQs

Is pleural plaques the same as mesothelioma?

No, pleural plaques are not the same as mesothelioma.

Both pleural plaques and mesothelioma are asbestos-related diseases, but that’s where the similarities generally end.

Pleural plaques are collagen deposits in the lining of the lungs (pleura). They are not cancerous or life-threatening and usually do not cause any symptoms. In most cases, doctors do not recommend that people with pleural plaques undergo any kind of treatment.

In contrast, mesothelioma is a rare and devastating cancer that typically develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Mesothelioma patients usually undergo treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy, to relieve symptoms and live longer.

Do pleural plaques lead to mesothelioma?

No, pleural plaques do not lead to mesothelioma.

However, people with pleural plaques are at risk for developing malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases because of their past asbestos exposure.

Jenna TozziWritten by:

Director of Patient Advocacy

Jenna Tozzi, RN, is the Director of Patient Advocacy at Mesothelioma Hope. With more than 15 years of experience as an adult and pediatric oncology nurse navigator, Jenna provides exceptional guidance and support to mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Jenna has been featured in Oncology Nursing News and is a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators & the American Nurses Association.

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References
  1. Cancer Therapy Advisor. “Pleural plaques/Mesothelioma.” Retrieved from: https://www.cancertherapyadvisor.com/home/decision-support-in-medicine/hospital-medicine/pleural-plaques-mesothelioma/#. Accessed on February 15, 2024.
  2. Gaillard F, Yap J, Weerakkody Y, et al. “Pleural plaque.” Reference article, Radiopaedia.org. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.53347/rID-8735. Accessed on February 15, 2024.
  3. Marchiori E, Hochhegger B, Zanetti G. “Pleural calcifications.” J Bras Pneumol. 2018 Nov-Dec;44(6):447. doi: 10.1590/S1806-37562018000000344. PMID: 30726318; PMCID: PMC6459740. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6459740/. Accessed on February 15, 2024.
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