Understanding Pleural Thickening of Lungs
Getting a diagnosis of pleural thickening might at first be more than frightening; it might also be confusing. Words like “pleura” and “mesothelioma” might, to this point, be pretty far from your experience, and if you’ve lately heard them, you’re probably wondering how to proceed. Before you get a second opinion or start planning how to respond to the diagnosis, it’s crucial to find out what exactly is going on.
In this article, we’ll discuss exactly what pleural thickening is and what it means for you. We will review symptoms and diagnosis and discuss your prognosis, then cover treatment options and the likelihood of survival. Although it can be distasteful or scary to read about such things, it’s the best way to ensure you make the best possible decisions about your disease and how you plan to treat it, so let’s get started.
Understanding Pleural Thickening
Pleural thickening is also known as diffuse pleural thickening or DPT. The name comes from lining that surrounds the lungs known as the pleura, which contains fluids and protects these delicate organs. When it gets injured, the thin membrane develops scarring which causes the tissue to thicken and grow, closing off the space between the pleura and lungs and resulting in a variety of symptoms, the most notable of which is chest pain and a reduced ability to breathe.
Pleural thickening isn’t the same as pleural plaque, and if you’ve heard the latter term, you should be aware of this. While pleural plaques are also associated with mesothelioma, they are not the same thing, due to their place of origin. While thickening occurs in the visceral pleural layer, plaque occurs on the outer layer that lines the inside of the rib cage, called the parietal pleura. Thickening most commonly occurs after prolonged exposure to pleural effusion, which is an unnatural buildup of liquid in the pleura.
While this condition is not cancer, it is often associated with a rare but deadly form of it known as mesothelioma.
Let’s discuss the differences between pleural thickening and mesothelioma now, as well as how one often leads to the other.
Pleural Thickening and Mesothelioma
Most commonly, pleural thickening is found in association with mesothelioma. This type of cancer forms in response to prolonged exposure to asbestos, a substance that was used quite commonly in the middle of the last century and has now been banned from most industrial applications. We will discuss its relation to mesothelioma and precursors like pleural thickening in the next section.
It is important to realize, though, that pleural thickening doesn’t only result from asbestos exposure or the early stages of mesothelioma. It can also arise as a result of several other diseases. These include empyema, which is a buildup of pus in the pleura, and hemothorax, an accumulation of blood. Fibrinous pleuritis can also cause pleural thickening, and is a kind of pleural inflammation, whereas pulmonary embolism is a blockage of a main artery to the lungs, and can be deadly.
Because all of these conditions can lead to death, it is important to be aware not only of the symptoms, which we will discuss in greater detail shortly but of the link between asbestos and this condition.
Asbestos and the Lungs
If you have had prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers in your life, usually through employment (most common industrial applications like home building and shipbuilding, as well as some auto industry work), you may be at risk for pleural thickening.
Asbestos fibers are long, thin and microscopic, and break easily when disturbed. Because they are so small, they easily become airborne, where they can enter the lungs and embed in the pleura. This causes an inflammatory response, which over time results in scarring and build up of tissue.
This scarring, in turn, causes thickening of the pleura. While new use of asbestos fibers is not allowed, millions of people were exposed to asbestos fibers over long periods of time in the middle of the last century, and therefore are at risk of pleural thickening.
Pleural Thickening Symptoms
Unfortunately, symptoms of mesothelioma take between 20 and 50 years to develop, and pleural thickening may take nearly as long. Although symptoms can occur as early as a year after exposure, they usually take much longer, closer to decades.
The time between exposure and when symptoms arise is called the latency period, and because symptoms frequently appear so long after exposure, it is sometimes hard to recognize what they are when they do finally appear. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of what the symptoms are so that when they arise you can catch them early and make treatment likelier.
Pleural effusion does not appear to have any symptoms in the very early stages of the disease. However, there are a few symptoms that crop up in most cases.
For instance, more than 95 percent of people complain of chest pain and trouble breathing, while 65 percent have at least “moderate” breathlessness. More than 10 percent say that have severe breathlessness.
Pleural Thickening Diagnosis
In order to determine what stage of progression your disease is in, physicians typically use one of several strategies. They frequently use CT (computed tomography) or PET (positron emission tomography) scans to get a closer look at the lining of your lungs. They will also talk to you to determine your symptoms and compile a diagnosis based on what they discover.
After that, they can give you a prognosis, or an idea of how your disease is likely to develop and progress for the rest of your life. Along with this prognosis comes an estimated length of time that you will live. While this is a depressing fact indeed, it is important to know this kind of thing so you can plan for your future and your family’s most effectively.
Prognosis and Survival Rate
Pleural thickening is not deadly on its own, but rather is usually a bad sign because it is a precursor to mesothelioma. If you are experiencing pleural thickening but have not yet been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may yet have a while to live, perhaps years to decades, depending on your condition. Once you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, however, the prognosis is usually much grimmer.
While mesothelioma is a rare disease – killing 30 people between 1999 and 2010 – it is a serious one. About 40 percent of people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma survive longer than one year, while only about 20 percent outlive 2 years past their diagnosis. By year three, only 8 percent of people have made it, while by five years, a very small percentage of people are still alive.
The location of mesothelioma (which can appear in the heart and lungs as well as the stomach and genitals) has bearing on how long you will live, as does the type of mesothelioma. Again, if you have not yet been diagnosed with mesothelioma but instead are just experiencing pleural thickening, your prognosis is much better for the time being.
Still, it is important to realize that 5 to 13.5 percent of workers who have been exposed to asbestos will experience pleural thickening between 3 and 34 years after their initial exposure to asbestos. If you have been diagnosed, it’s important to get treatment both to relieve symptoms and to minimize the chances of getting mesothelioma.
Pleural Thickening Treatments
Unlike with cancer, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation usually aren’t prescribed for pleural thickening. Instead, doctors typically prescribe medications that will help you breathe, reduce chest pain and generally make the symptoms more manageable. If you have been diagnosed, it is critical that you stop smoking immediately, as smoking causes the symptoms to worsen and can lead to a greater risk of mesothelioma as well.
Understanding your risks and complications can help you make the best possible decisions for your health and future, so don’t wait. If you have questions or concerns you’d like to discuss, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Get Immediate Help Now
If you or someone you love has been exposed to asbestos and now face a condition such as pleural thickening, contact us immediately to speak with a specialist who will help guide you through your options, both legally from a compensation standpoint and medically should you have questions.