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Occupational Asthma

What is occupational asthma?

You may get occupational asthma by breathing in irritants at work. It is often reversible. The symptoms may go away when you avoid the irritants. But, long-term exposure can cause lasting damage. Examples of workplace irritants include:

  • Dusts
  • Gases
  • Fumes
  • Vapors

What causes occupational asthma?

Some airborne irritants in the workplace include:

Irritant

Examples

Type of occupations/
environments at risk

Chemical dusts and vapors

Isocyanates, trimellitic anhydride, phthalic anhydride

Makers of foam mattresses and upholstery, insulation, packaging materials, plasticizers, and polyurethane paint

Animal substances

Bacterial dusts, dander, hair, mites, protein dusts, small insects

Farmers, animal handlers, kennel workers, jockeys, and veterinarians

Organic dusts

Cereals, coffee, flour, grains, tea

Millers, bakers, and other food processors

Cotton, flax, and hemp dust

Dusts from cotton and textile industry

Cotton and textile workers

Metals

Chromium, nickel sulfate, platinum, soldering fumes

Makers of metals and refineries

What are the symptoms of occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma symptoms are the same as asthma. They include:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Eye irritation
  • Chest tightness

These symptoms may get worse when you are at work and better when you are not at work. Symptoms may not appear until several hours after the exposure, and in some cases may not become apparent until several months after starting a job.

During later stages of occupational asthma, symptoms may become a problem during exposure to more common triggers, such as smoke, dust, and temperature changes.

How is occupational asthma diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can diagnosis occupational asthma by reviewing your medical history and a doing a physical exam. You may also have lung function tests, blood and sputum lab tests, and a chest X-ray to rule out other lung problems.

How is occupational asthma treated?

Treatment for occupational asthma includes avoiding the substance that triggers the asthma symptoms. Also, avoid inhaling gases, such as chlorine, or nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. These things can make asthma symptoms more severe. Other treatment may include medicines to control the asthma. Advanced treatment may also include:

  • Medicines
  • Physical therapy
  • Breathing aids

Can occupational asthma be prevented?

The best way to prevent occupational asthma is to avoid the triggers. If symptoms occur at work, you may need to change jobs or work in a different environment in the same company. Certain steps can help cut the risk of occupational asthma:

  • Change the work process to better handle irritant exposure
  • Use industrial hygiene techniques that are right for the type of irritant you are exposed to and that will keep exposure levels to a minimum, including certain masks or other barrier methods to exposure
  • Have regular checkups to find possible lung damage or other problems related to the irritant exposure
  • Know your family medical history of asthma. It may put you at greater risk for occupational asthma in certain trades.

How cigarette smoking contributes to occupational asthma is not fully known. But smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to get lung problems in general. 

Key points about occupational asthma

  • You can get occupational asthma if your workplace has irritants that trigger asthma. 
  • It is often reversible.
  • You can develop occupational asthma even if other coworkers are not affected.
  • Symptoms are the same as regular asthma.
  • Treatment for occupational asthma usually includes staying away from the substance that triggers the asthma symptoms.
  • Avoiding triggers is the best way to prevent occupational asthma.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth Greenblatt, RN, M.Ed
Online Medical Reviewer: LIttle, Frederic, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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