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Occupational Asthma

Topic Overview

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

Occupational asthma develops when a person is exposed to a particular inhaled substance in the workplace. The term refers to new cases of asthma. About 16 out of 100 adults who have asthma have it because of exposures at work.footnote 1 Workplace exposure to substances that cause airway irritation or inflammation can also make asthma worse in people who already have the condition.

There are some things that may cause occupational asthma and certain professions 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.

People who have occupational asthma usually have symptoms during the workweek, such as coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. These may develop hours after leaving the workplace. Symptoms generally improve during weekends and vacations. If you have any of these symptoms, let your doctor know about them as soon as possible. The earlier you let your doctor know, the better the chances are to find out the cause of your symptoms.

The diagnosis of occupational asthma requires detailed documentation of exposure to irritants or allergens in the workplace and evidence that these substances are causing symptoms. In a test called specific inhalation challenge, you are exposed to a small amount of a possible workplace irritant or allergen. Lung function is then measured to find out whether the substance is the cause of symptoms.

Treatment of occupational asthma consists of:

  • Trying to reduce 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 quick-relief medicines (such as bronchodilators) to help you breathe during an asthma attack.

You may need to change your job if your symptoms do not improve even when you avoid possible triggers and take medicines. Talk with your doctor or asthma specialist before changing your job.

References

Citations

  1. Tarlo SM, Lemiere C (2014). Occupational asthma. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(7): 640–649. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1301758. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerElizabeth T. Russo, MD - Internal Medicine

Current as ofDecember 6, 2017


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