Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques are the most common sign of asbestos exposure and occurs when areas of hyalinized collagen fibers form in the pleura.

The latency period for some patients is less than 10 years, but for most patients, imaging scans could take between 20 and 30 years after long-term asbestos fiber inhalation before pleural plaques are visible.

What are Pleural Plaques?

Pleural plaques are not cancerous, although they may be an indicator that a patient has a higher risk of developing cancers such as asbestos-related lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma. Pleural plaques can develop on both layers of the thin membrane that surrounds the lungs, or the pleura.

In most cases, patients don’t show the obvious symptoms that would be expected. Many patients do experience an uncomfortable, grating sensation as well as pain while breathing.

In almost all situations, pleural plaques are caused by asbestos exposure.

The good news is that the presence of pleural plaques does not mean you will develop mesothelioma.

Where do Pleural Plaques Develop?

Pleural plaques develop in one of three places. Most often, they develop on the inside lining of the rib cage, the parietal pleura. Additionally, they can develop on the visceral pleural, which is what lines the lungs, or can also occur on the diaphragm.

What are the Symptoms of Pleural Plaques?

Most patients that have pleural plaques do not experience symptoms. Recently, doctors have seen evidence that these plaques can decrease lung capacity and other lung function.

In addition to plaques, those exposed to asbestos can also develop pleural thickening, which is a fibrous growth that can prevent the lungs from expanding fully.

How are Pleural Plaques Diagnosed?

In order to diagnose pleural plaques, imaging scans are used. Most of the time, these plaques are discovered while testing for other conditions.

X-Ray Discovery

The most common way to discover pleural plaques is with X-rays. Typically, the plaques are discovered when an X-ray shows thickened nodular edges around the lungs that look similar to a holly leaf. It is easiest to see calcified plaques.

CT Scan Discovery

Ideally, pleural plaques are diagnosed with a CT scan. This is the preferred method, as the scan can identify plaques that aren’t calcified, which can be difficult, if not impossible, to see with just an X-ray.

How are Pleural Plaques Treated?

Pleural plaques do not require treatment because they are noncancerous and should not lead to any loss of lung function.

Patients can take the following steps to prevent more damage:

  • Avoid further exposure to asbestos
  • Quit smoking
  • Minimize exposure to air pollution

Are Pleural Plaques Related to Cancer?

Some evidence shows that the thickening of the pleura can indeed increase a patient’s risk for developing pleural mesothelioma. There are opposing studies indicating that this is not the case.

In order to assess if a patient with pleural plaques has an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, most doctors and cancer experts would recommend assessing each patient, taking into account their personal cancer risk factors.