Pleural plaques are the most common consequences of asbestos exposure. They are almost certainly only caused by asbestos exposure.
The pleura are two thin membranes surrounding the lungs. Over the course of many years after first significant exposure to asbestos, fibres find their way through to the outer layer. There they may cause the nature of the membrane to change. The pleura becomes locally thicker. After a further period of time this thicker plaque may also begin to calcify, at which stage it will be readily visible on an x-ray of the chest.
Plaques do not usually cause any symptoms, either of pain or breathlessness. Until an x-ray is performed, usually for other reasons, a person may be completely unaware the plaques are there. In occasional cases numerous plaques form causing stiffness of the chest wall making the effort of breathing harder. In a very few cases the plaques may also lead to distortion of the underlying lung tissue reducing the efficiency of the lung.
There is thought to be a relationship between a person's total exposure to asbestos and the likelihood plaques will form. Similarly, more plaques will probably indicate a greater degree of exposure. There is no direct link between the presence of plaques and the development of other diseases such as asbestosis, diffuse pleural thickening, lung cancer or mesothelioma. However, if plaques are present, they may point to asbestos being the cause of these other diseases. The presence of plaques does indicate a degree of exposure to asbestos which creates a risk that one or more of these more serious conditions could develop.
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