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Work-Related Asthma

What is work-related asthma?

You may get work-related asthma by breathing in irritants on the job. The symptoms may go away when you are not at work. But long-term exposure can cause lasting damage. Irritants at work can include:  

  • Dusts

  • Gases

  • Fumes

  • Vapors

What causes work-related asthma?

Some irritants that may be breathed in at work include:

Irritant

Examples

Type of occupations and workplaces at risk

Chemical dusts and vapors

Isocyanates, trimellitic anhydride, phthalic anhydride

Makers of foam mattresses and upholstery, insulation, packaging materials, plasticizers, and polyurethane paint

Animal substances

Bacterial dusts, dander, hair, mites, protein dusts, small insects

Farmers, animal handlers, kennel workers, jockeys, and veterinarians

Organic dusts

Cereals, coffee, flour, grains, tea

Millers, bakers, and other food processors

Cotton, flax, and hemp dust

Dusts from cotton and textile industry

Cotton and textile workers

Metals

Chromium, nickel sulfate, platinum, soldering fumes

Metal makers and refineries

What are the symptoms of work-related asthma?

Work-related asthma symptoms are the same as regular asthma symptoms. They include:

  • Wheezing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Runny nose

  • Nasal congestion

  • Eye irritation

  • Chest tightness

These symptoms may get worse when you are at work. They may get better when you are not at work. Symptoms may not be seen until a few hours after the exposure. In some cases they may not show up until months after you start a job.

During later stages, symptoms may occur when you are around more common triggers. These include smoke, dust, and temperature changes.

How is work-related asthma diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can diagnose work-related asthma by reviewing your health history and doing a physical exam. You may also have lung function tests, blood and mucus (sputum) lab tests, and a chest X-ray. These tests are done to rule out other lung problems.

How is work-related asthma treated?

The most important treatment is to stay away from the substance that triggers your symptoms. Also don't breathe in gases such as chlorine or nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. These things can make symptoms more severe. Other treatment may include medicines to control the asthma. Advanced treatment may also include:

  • Medicines

  • Physical therapy

  • Breathing aids

Ask your healthcare provider for an Asthma Action Plan, if needed, for the workplace.

Can work-related asthma be prevented?

The best way to prevent this condition is to stay away from the triggers. If symptoms happen at work, you may need to change jobs. Or you may need to work in a different part of the company. These steps can help cut your risk:

  • Change the way your work is done. This may help reduce your exposure.

  • Use industrial hygiene methods that are right for the type of irritant you are exposed to. And use methods that will keep exposure levels low. Wear the correct protective gear, such as masks and gloves.

  • Have regular checkups. This can help find possible lung damage. Or find other problems linked to the exposure.

  • Know if your family health history includes asthma. This may put you at greater risk for work-related asthma in certain jobs.

Experts don't know how smoking helps cause this condition. But smokers are more likely to get lung problems in general. 

Key points about work-related asthma

  • You can get work-related asthma if your workplace has irritants that trigger asthma. 

  • The symptoms may go away when you are not at work. But long-term exposure can cause lasting damage.

  • You can have work-related asthma even if other coworkers are not affected.

  • The best way to prevent and treat this is to stay away from the triggers.

  • If symptoms happen at work, you may need to change jobs. Or you may need to work in a different part of the company.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Tennille Dozier RN BSN RDMS
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2018
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.