Occupational Asthma

Condition Basics

What is occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma is the most common form of work-related lung disease in many countries. When a person gets asthma as an adult, exposure at work is a likely cause.

This type of asthma happens when a person is exposed to certain substances in the workplace. Examples are wood dust, plastics, and certain chemicals. Breathing in these substances can irritate your lungs or cause them to swell and get inflamed. If you already have asthma, being exposed to these things on the job can make your asthma worse.

Treatment involves reducing your exposure to substances that trigger symptoms and taking medicines.

What causes it?

Occupational asthma happens when a person breathes in certain substances in the workplace.

There are some things that may cause occupational asthma and certain jobs in which people might be exposed to them. These include:

  • Flour dust (bakers, millers).
  • Wood dust (carpenters, joiners, sawmill workers).
  • Plastics (plastics workers, motor vehicle repairers, foundry workers).
  • Solder fumes (electronics workers).
  • Animal dander or urine (animal handlers in research laboratories, scientists, food processors).
  • Chemicals used in the health care industry to sterilize equipment (health care workers).
  • Latex.

What are the symptoms?

People who have occupational asthma usually have symptoms during the workweek. They may cough or wheeze. Or their chest may feel tight. These may develop hours after they leave the workplace.

Symptoms generally get better during weekends and vacations. If you have any of these symptoms, let your doctor know about them as soon as you can. The earlier you let your doctor know, the better the chances are to find out the cause of your symptoms.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose occupational asthma, your doctor will ask you about what irritants or allergens you've been exposed to in the workplace.

A test, called a specific inhalation challenge, will also be done. During this test, you're exposed to a small amount of a possible workplace irritant or allergen. Your lung function is then measured to find out whether the substance is the cause of symptoms.

How is occupational asthma treated?

Occupational asthma is treated by:

  • Reducing your exposure to possible triggers. You may try to improve the ventilation in your work area. Or you might wear a type of breathing mask called a respirator.
  • Taking medicines to treat your symptoms. Medicines used to treat occupational asthma are similar to those used to treat other types of asthma. These include inhaled corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. And they include quick-relief medicines (such as bronchodilators) to help you breathe during an asthma attack.

You may need to change your job if your symptoms don't get better even when you avoid possible triggers and take medicines. Talk with your doctor or asthma specialist before you change your job.

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