Dust, fumes and other substances you come into contact with at work can cause asthma. Find out how to recognize this common type of asthma.
Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus. Occupational asthma is a type of asthma. It occurs when you breathe in chemical fumes, gases, dust or other substances on the job. When that happens, it causes an allergic or immunological response.
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 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 changes to your lungs.
Occupational asthma signs and symptoms may include:
Other possible 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 medical treatment right away 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 your health care provider 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.
If you have asthma, the inside walls of the airways in your lungs can become inflamed and swollen. In addition, membranes in your airway linings may secrete excess mucus. The result is an asthma attack. During an asthma attack, your narrowed airways make it harder to breathe, and you may cough and wheeze.
More than 400 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 and make it difficult to breathe. With occupational asthma, lung inflammation may be triggered by an allergic response to a substance, which usually develops over time. Inhaling fumes from a lung irritant, such as chlorine, can trigger immediate asthma symptoms in the absence of allergy.
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|
|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|
The longer you're exposed to a substance that causes occupational asthma, the worse your symptoms may become — 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 changes to your lungs.
The best way to prevent occupational asthma is to control exposure to chemicals and other substances that that workers may be sensitive to or that are irritating. Workplaces can implement better control methods to prevent exposures, use less harmful substances and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.
Medications may help relieve symptoms and control inflammation associated with occupational asthma. But 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 MSDS to your health care provider.
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.
Diagnosing occupational asthma is similar to diagnosing other types of asthma. However, your health care provider 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. Blood tests, X-rays or other tests may be necessary to rule out a cause other than occupational asthma.
You may be asked to perform lung function tests. These include:
Spirometry. This noninvasive test measures how well you breathe. It 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 the standard range for a person of your age and sex, your airways may be blocked by inflammation — a key sign of asthma.
You'll inhale a bronchodilator drug used in asthma treatment, then take the spirometry test again. If your measurements improve significantly, it's likely you have asthma.
You may need tests to see whether you have a reaction to specific substances. These include:
A spirometer is a diagnostic device that measures the amount of air you're able to breathe in and out. It also tracks the time it takes you to exhale completely after you take a deep breath.
Avoiding the workplace substance that causes your symptoms is critical. However, once you become sensitive to a substance, tiny amounts may trigger asthma symptoms, even if you wear a mask or respirator.
The goal of treatment is to prevent symptoms and stop an asthma attack in progress. You may need medications for successful treatment. The same medication guidelines are used to treat both occupational and nonoccupational asthma.
The right medication for you depends on many things. These include your age, symptoms, asthma triggers and what seems to work best to keep your asthma under control.
If you find you need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often than recommended, you may need to adjust your long-term control medication.
Also, if your asthma is triggered or worsened by allergies, you may benefit from allergy treatment. Allergy treatments include oral and nasal spray antihistamines and decongestants.
Many people claim alternative remedies reduce asthma symptoms. But 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:
You're likely to start by seeing your primary health care provider. Or you may start by seeing a doctor who specializes in asthma (allergist-immunologist or pulmonologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
For occupational asthma, some basic questions to ask your care provider include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your care provider is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as: