Occupational asthma is asthma that's caused by breathing in chemical fumes, gases, dust or other substances on the job. Occupational asthma can result from exposure to a substance you're sensitive to â causing an allergic or immunological response â or to an irritating toxic substance.
Like other types of asthma, occupational asthma can cause chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath. People with allergies or with a family history of allergies are more likely to develop occupational asthma.
Avoidance of occupational triggers is an important part of management. Otherwise, treatment for occupational asthma is similar to treatment for other types of asthma and generally includes taking medications to reduce symptoms. If you already have asthma, sometimes treatment can help it from becoming worse in the workplace.
If it's not correctly diagnosed and you are not protected or able to avoid exposure, occupational asthma can cause permanent lung damage, disability or death.
Occupational asthma symptoms are similar to those caused by other types of asthma. Signs and symptoms may include:
Other possible accompanying signs and symptoms may include:
Occupational asthma symptoms depend on the substance you're exposed to, how long and how often you're exposed, and other factors. Your symptoms may:
Seek immediate medical treatment if your symptoms worsen. Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack that needs emergency treatment include:
Make an appointment to see a doctor if you have breathing problems, such as coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath. Breathing problems may be a sign of asthma, especially if symptoms seem to be getting worse over time or appear to be aggravated by specific triggers or irritants.
More than 250 workplace substances have been identified as possible causes of occupational asthma. These substances include:
Asthma symptoms start when your lungs become irritated (inflamed). Inflammation causes several reactions that restrict the airways, making breathing difficult. With occupational asthma, lung inflammation may be triggered by an allergic response to a substance, which usually develops over time. Alternatively, inhaling fumes from a lung irritant, such as chlorine, can trigger immediate asthma symptoms in the absence of allergy.
Diagnosing occupational asthma is similar to diagnosing other types of asthma. However, your doctor will also try to identify whether a workplace substance is causing your symptoms and what it may be.
An asthma diagnosis needs to be confirmed with lung (pulmonary) function tests and an allergy skin prick test. Your doctor may order blood tests, X-rays or other tests to rule out a cause other than occupational asthma.
Your doctor may ask you to perform lung function tests. These include:
Spirometry. This noninvasive test, which measures how well you breathe, is the preferred test for diagnosing asthma. During this 10- to 15-minute test, you take deep breaths and forcefully exhale into a hose connected to a machine called a spirometer. If certain key measurements are below normal for a person of your age and sex, your airways may be blocked by inflammation â a key sign of asthma.
Your doctor has you inhale a bronchodilator drug used in asthma treatment, then retake the spirometry test. If your measurements improve significantly, it's likely you have asthma.
Your doctor may do tests to see whether you have a reaction to specific substances. These include:
The longer you're exposed to a substance that causes occupational asthma, the worse your symptoms may become â and the longer it will take for them to improve once you end your exposure to the irritant. In some cases, exposure to airborne asthma triggers can cause permanent lung changes, resulting in disability or death.
The best way to prevent occupational asthma is for workplaces to control the workers' level of exposure to chemicals and other substances that may be sensitizers or irritants. Such measures can include implementing better control methods to prevent exposures, using less harmful substances and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.
Although you may rely on medications to relieve symptoms and control inflammation associated with occupational asthma, you can do several things on your own to maintain overall health and lessen the possibility of attacks:
If you are in the United States and you have a job in a high-risk profession, your company has legal responsibilities to help protect you from hazardous chemicals. Under guidelines established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your employer is required to do the following:
Under OSHA guidelines, your employer is required to keep a material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each hazardous chemical used in your workplace. This is a document that must be submitted by the chemical's manufacturer to your employer. You have a legal right to see and copy such documents. If you suspect you're allergic to a certain substance, show the material safety data sheet to your doctor.
While at work, be alert for unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and report them to your supervisor. If necessary, call OSHA at 800-321-OSHA (800-321-6742) and ask for an on-site inspection. You can do this so that your name won't be revealed to your employer.
While many people claim alternative remedies reduce asthma symptoms, in most cases more research is needed to see if they work and if they have possible side effects, especially in people with allergies and asthma. A number of alternative treatments have been tried for asthma, but there's no clear, proven benefit from treatments such as:
The intensity of your exposure increases your risk of developing occupational asthma. In addition, you will have increased risk if:
It's possible to develop occupational asthma in almost any workplace. But your risk is higher if you work in certain occupations. Some of the riskiest jobs and the asthma-producing substances associated with them include the following:
|Animal handlers, veterinarians||Animal proteins|
|Bakers, millers, farmers||Cereal grains|
|Carpet makers||Vegetable gums|
|Metal workers||Cobalt, nickel|
|Food production workers||Milk powder, egg powder|
|Forest workers, carpenters, cabinetmakers||Wood dust|
|Health care workers||Latex and chemicals|
|Pharmaceutical workers, bakers||Drugs, enzymes|
|Seafood processors||Herring, snow crab|
|Spray painters, insulation installers, plastics and foam industry workers, welders, metalworkers, chemical manufacturers, shellac handlers||Chemicals|
|Textile workers||Dyes, plastics|
|Users of plastics or epoxy resins, chemical manufacturers||Chemicals|