What is occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma is asthma caused by or worsened by exposure to substances in the workplace. These substances may cause asthma in one of three ways: an allergic reaction, an irritant reaction, or a reaction in which chemicals that occur naturally in the body build up in the lung, resulting in asthma. For example, healthcare workers can develop an allergy to latex gloves by breathing in the powdered proteins from the inner lining of the gloves. Workers in the chemical industry who are exposed to substances like ammonia can develop asthma due to an irritant effect, not an allergic reaction.

There are numerous substances used in various industries that can cause occupational asthma:

  • Chemical exposure from working with adhesives, shellac and lacquer, plastics, epoxy resins, carpeting, foam and rubber, insulation, dyes (textile workers), enzymes in detergents
  • Exposure to proteins in animal hair and dander
  • Exposure to grains, green coffee beans, and papain
  • Cotton, flax, and hemp dust, commonly found in the textile industry
  • Metals such as platinum, chromium, nickel sulfate, and soldering fumes

How do I know if my asthma could be work-related?

Generally, if symptoms are worse on days that you work, improve when you are at home for any length of time (weekends, vacations) and then reoccur when you return to work, occupational asthma should be considered.

What are the signs and symptoms of occupational asthma?

Symptoms include general signs of asthma such as a cough, wheeze, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulty. Eye irritation, nasal congestion, and/or a runny nose may also be present. As stated previously, this can be allergy-related or an irritant reaction from exposure to triggers in the workplace.

If you think you have occupational asthma, ask your doctor about a referral to a specialist, most likely an allergist. The specialist will perform a detailed exam including your medical history and current problems. A treatment plan will be developed, including medications to control asthma and trigger avoidance.

How do I prevent asthma attacks if I have occupational asthma?

Reducing exposure to the occupational trigger is the most important step that can be taken. Appropriate medical management is also important. However, even with appropriate medications, continued exposure may make asthma more difficult to control.

Employers are required to follow certain guidelines that determine acceptable levels of exposure to substances that may cause asthma. However, if exposure is unavoidable in a particular job, most employers are willing to help the employee find a more suitable workplace. Once the cause of your asthma has been determined, discuss with your healthcare provider how best to approach your employer and what precautions need to be taken.

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