What Are Asbestos-Induced Pleural Plaques?
Pleural plaques are best described as a thickening or hardening of the jelly-like covering around the lungs.
When our lungs get irritated, our immune system develops a protein called collagen at the spot of the irritation. As more collagen builds up, it fills up the space in the lung’s lining (known as the pleura) until there’s so much collagen that it begins to harden.
In the case of pleural plaques, the irritation is usually caused by asbestos fibers that have been inhaled or ingested.
- Pleural plaques are a known marker of asbestos exposure.
- They are the most common type of asbestos-related disease.
- Pleural plaques occur in 50% of people with long-term asbestos exposure.
Unlike plaque buildup in other regions of the body, such as in the heart, pleural plaques are usually harmless. However, the presence of pleural plaques may be an independent risk factor for pleural mesothelioma, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
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Symptoms of Pleural Plaques
Typically, pleural plaques do not cause any symptoms at all. If symptoms are experienced, they are generally mild.
Symptoms of pleural plaques may include excessive coughing and pain while breathing and coughing.
Some researchers believe that significant pleural plaque buildup may also be associated with slightly diminished lung function.
An individual with pleural plaques rarely experiences severe shortness of breath. If shortness of breath is continually present, a medical professional should be consulted to determine if another illness or disease is the cause.
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How Does Asbestos Cause Pleural Plaques?
Researchers believe that asbestos exposure is the leading cause of pleural plaques.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, the body’s immune system attempts to eliminate them. However, asbestos fibers are so strong that the body can’t break them down.
These fibers slowly irritate healthy tissue depending on where they settle. Over time, the body’s immune response to these fibers causes pleural thickening and the hardening of collagen, leading to scar tissue formation.
The pleura has two layers. The parietal pleura lines the chest wall and diaphragm. It’s the most common site for the development of pleural plaques. The other layer is the visceral pleura, which lines the inside of the lungs. Although it’s rare, pleural plaques can also form in the visceral pleura.
Who’s at Risk of Developing Pleural Plaques?
In most cases, pleural plaques will develop only after prolonged asbestos exposure. Because of this, those who regularly work in asbestos-heavy jobs are at a higher risk of developing pleural plaques.
People with a higher risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Construction workers
- Factory workers
- Industrial workers
- Military veterans
- Steel mill workers
- Textile mill workers
These workers had a high risk of asbestos exposure before the early 1980s, as this was when widespread restrictions on asbestos began. However, asbestos-related diseases can take 10-50 years to develop after exposure.
It is also possible to have secondary asbestos exposure, which could happen when a spouse or household member breathed in asbestos fibers when they washed the clothes of a construction worker, for example.
Studies have found that many patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases also have pleural plaques.
A 2019 report from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai also suggested that talc may contribute to developing asbestos-related pleural plaques. Asbestos has been found in some samples of talc products such as baby powder.
Asbestos Pleural Plaques and Mesothelioma
There is no direct link between the presence of pleural plaques and mesothelioma.
However, there is a direct link between asbestos and pleural plaques as well as mesothelioma cancer. Individuals with prolonged exposure to asbestos are at greater risk of both diseases.
Even if it happened decades ago, asbestos exposure could lead to the development of pleural plaques or mesothelioma today.
Patients who worked in a high-risk occupation for asbestos exposure, such as shipbuilding or construction work — or who have developed pleural plaques — should speak with their doctor about the risk of mesothelioma and what they can do to protect themselves.
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Diagnosis of Asbestos Pleural Plaques
Since pleural plaques usually have no symptoms, a diagnosis typically only comes after an individual visits a doctor for other reasons.
Pleural plaques can be diagnosed through:
- Computed tomography (CT) scans
Patients can live with pleural plaques for decades without even knowing that they have them, and they likely wouldn’t know unless they had an X-ray or a chest CT scan for another unrelated condition.
Through a chest X-ray, radiologists use electromagnetic waves to take a picture (radiograph) of the chest and chest wall. In an X-ray, a calcified pleural plaque from asbestos will show up as a translucent white deposit on the lungs.
If an asbestos pleural plaque or other strange mass is visible in the pleural space, patients should ask their doctor about their risk of lung cancer or mesothelioma since both of these cancers can be linked to asbestos.
A doctor can best assess a patient’s cancer risk and determine if they require further testing for other asbestos-related diseases.
Through a CT scan, radiologists take a series of high-resolution X-ray images to get a more in-depth look inside the body.
Doctors can use CT scans to find masses on the lungs or pleura, but these imaging scans cannot always determine whether the mass represents cancer or a benign (non-cancerous) pleural plaque.
Doctors take a small mass sample through a biopsy to determine if the tissue is cancerous or benign. A biopsy is the only way to determine a cancer diagnosis, including mesothelioma.
Treatment & Prognosis for Pleural Plaques
In the overwhelming majority of asbestos pleural plaque cases, treatment is not necessary.
People can live with pleural plaques for decades without symptoms and full lives without reduced lung function.
Most doctors believe the pleural plaques are unlikely to progress and impede breathing.
Likewise, the prognosis — or expected health outlook — for patients with pleural plaques is usually favorable.
Although pleural plaques alone do not require any type of treatment, it is vital to remember that a diagnosis could indicate a higher risk factor for other asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.
Next Steps for Patients With Asbestos Pleural Plaques
While pleural plaques are not dangerous, they could be an early risk factor for more dangerous asbestos diseases.
You should speak with a doctor immediately if you worked a job that exposed you to asbestos. They can help you determine if you have pleural plaques — or another asbestos-related pleural disease — and what treatment options are available to you.
Mesothelioma Hope is also here to answer any questions you have about pleural plaques and mesothelioma.
Our team of nurses and Patient Advocates can:
- Assess your options for medical treatment
- Find top mesothelioma doctors in your area
- See if you can receive financial compensation for your asbestos-related diagnosis
Pleural Plaques FAQs
What are pleural plaques due to asbestos exposure?
Asbestos-induced pleural plaques are chalky buildups of collagen in the lining of the lungs, which is known as the pleura. Asbestos pleural plaques are benign (non-cancerous) and typically don’t have any symptoms.
Pleural plaques form as the body tries to protect itself from inflammation caused by asbestos fibers that become lodged in the pleura after occupational or secondhand asbestos exposure.
Are pleural plaques asbestosis?
Pleural plaques and asbestosis are both caused by asbestos exposure, but they are not the same thing.
Pleural plaques are areas of thickened tissue on the pleura (the lining of the lungs and chest wall). They are generally considered a marker of past exposure to asbestos but typically do not cause symptoms or reduce lung function.
On the other hand, asbestosis is a more serious condition. It is a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, leading to inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue.
Unlike pleural plaques, asbestosis can cause respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness.
What is the difference between pleural plaques and asbestos?
Pleural plaques and asbestos are connected but different. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in construction, shipbuilding, and other industries from the 1930s to the early 1980s due to its heat-resistant and insulating properties.
Asbestos is a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) that’s linked to serious diseases like mesothelioma cancer, asbestos, and lung cancer.
Pleural plaques, on the other hand, are physical changes that can occur in the pleura, which is the thin membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity. These plaques are areas of thickened tissue that may develop after exposure to asbestos. They are harmless on their own but could indicate the risk of developing mesothelioma.
What is the prognosis for pleural plaques?
Pleural plaques themselves are generally considered benign (non-cancerous) and do not affect a person’s overall life expectancy.
However, pleural plaques are considered an indicator of past asbestos exposure. While the plaques themselves are not harmful, the same cannot be said for asbestos exposure.
Asbestos exposure is linked to more serious health conditions, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Therefore, the prognosis for someone with pleural plaques depends on whether they develop any of these associated asbestos-related diseases.
Are pleural plaques serious?
No. Pleural plaques are not serious, as they do not cause health problems.
However, pleural plaques are often a sign that you have been exposed to asbestos. Those who have accidentally inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers are at risk of a number of serious health problems, including asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Can pleural plaques turn into mesothelioma?
No. Pleural plaques do not turn into mesothelioma or any cancerous tumor.
However, those with pleural plaques are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma, as pleural plaques are a sign of asbestos exposure.
If you have been exposed to asbestos, even if the exposure took place decades ago, talk with your doctor to determine if you are at risk for other illnesses.
What are the symptoms of pleural plaques?
Pleural plaques usually don’t cause symptoms, but if they do, they’re usually mild. Common symptoms are occasional coughing, discomfort while breathing, and coughing. Studies suggest that too many pleural plaques may slightly reduce lung function.
It’s rare for someone with pleural plaques to have severe shortness of breath. If you have persistent shortness of breath, it’s best to see a doctor to find out if there’s another underlying illness or disease causing the symptoms.