Occupational Asthma

Written by Maureen Donohue
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is Occupational Asthma?

Occupational asthma is a form of asthma triggered by inhaling fumes, gases, dust, or other particles in the workplace. These substances irritate the airways in the lungs, making them tighten and swell. This can cause wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and coughing.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology reports that occupational asthma is the most common work-related lung disease in developed countries. They estimate that up to 15 percent of asthma cases in the United States may be job-related. Approximately 25 million Americans suffer from some form of asthma. (AAAI)

What Are the Causes and Risk Factors of Asthma?

Airborne substances can trigger occupational asthma in two ways—by irritating the airways or by beginning an allergic response.

You may suffer from occupational asthma even if you never had asthma before or you may have had asthma as a child. If you already suffer from adult asthma, you may find that your symptoms get worse when you are at work.

You are more at risk to develop occupational asthma if you smoke, have allergies, or have a family history of allergies.

More than 300 substances have been identified as possible causes of occupational asthma. These include:

  • animal proteins from dander, hair, scales, fur, saliva, urine, and feces
  • chemicals used to make industrial products, such as paint, varnishes, and adhesives
  • enzymes used in detergents and other products
  • metals, especially platinum, chromium, and nickel sulfate
  • plant proteins, such as gases, ammonia, and smoke
  • insecticides

You also have a higher risk of getting occupational asthma if you work as a:

  • baker
  • detergent or drug manufacturer
  • farmer or grain elevator worker
  • laboratory worker
  • metal or plastic worker
  • factory worker woodworker
  • veterinarian and other animal handler

Occupational asthma can occur months or years after exposure- to an irritant. It can also occur after a single exposure to a high concentration of irritants.

What Are the Symptoms of Occupational Asthma?

The symptoms of occupational asthma include:

  • coughing
  • tightness in the chest
  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing

Often, you will have symptoms while you are at work, -and they will improve after you leave the workplace. Your symptoms typically will get worse toward the end of the work week. They may disappear when you are away from the workplace of when you are on vacation.

How Is Occupational Asthma Diagnosed?

Many people with occupational asthma are wrongly diagnosed with bronchitis. If you are suffering from asthma symptoms, or if you think you have occupational asthma, you should make an appointment with an allergist. Occupational asthma can permanently damage your lungs if it is not diagnosed and treated early.

Your allergist will ask you about your symptoms and your job, especially about any airborne exposure to irritants. He or she will likely conduct tests to rule out other causes of your asthma. These tests may include:

  • lung function tests, such as a spirometry and peak flow measurement to see the capacity and performance of your lungs
  • nitric oxide test to determine if you have high levels of nitric oxide in your breath, which can be a sign of asthma
  • allergy skin tests to identify specific allergens, or substances that cause an allergic response
  • blood tests to look for antibodies to certain irritants
  • bronchial provocation test to measure your lungs’ reaction to possible allergens
  • chest X-ray

How Is Occupational Asthma Treated?

If you have this condition, you will need to avoid exposure to any substances that trigger your asthma. You can try moving to another location at work. However, in some cases, you may need to find another job where you are not exposed to irritants.

Your doctor can prescribe asthma drugs, such as an inhaled bronchodilator or steroids, to help reduce your symptoms.

There are several steps that you can take to make your attacks less severe or reduce their frequency. You should quit smoking, if you do. Also, try to avoid exposure to airborne irritants in your home. These include pollen, mold, dust mites, pet dander, household cleaners, chlorine in swimming pools, and natural gas from the stove. The use of air conditioners and dehumidifiers in your living spaces can help keep the air clean.

A regular exercise routine will help strengthen your heart and lungs. However, never exercise outside if there is an air pollution alert or if it is cold, especially if the temperature falls below freezing. Both air pollution and cold air can trigger asthma attacks.

With treatment, the outcome for people with occupational asthma is good. However, symptoms can persist after you stop exposure to irritants and may even continue for years.

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