Occupational asthma is asthma that's caused or worsened by breathing in a workplace substance, such as chemical fumes, gases or dust. Like other types of asthma, occupational asthma can cause symptoms, such as chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath.
When diagnosed and treated early, occupational asthma may be reversible. Long-term exposure to allergy-causing substances can cause worsening symptoms and lifetime asthma. Treatment for occupational asthma is similar to treatment for other types of asthma, and it generally includes taking medications to reduce symptoms. But the only sure way to eliminate your symptoms and prevent lung damage due to occupational asthma is to avoid whatever's triggering it.
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 vary from person to person and depend on the substance you're exposed to, how long and how often you're exposed, your body's individual reaction, and other factors. Your symptoms may vary and can include symptoms that:
When to see a doctor
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.
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 ...
It's not clear why some people develop occupational asthma from exposure to something at work. It likely has to do with inherited traits (genetics) and exposure to environmental substances over time.
Asthma symptoms start when your lungs become irritated (inflamed). Inflammation causes several reactions that restrict the airways, making breathing difficult. After you're exposed to something that triggers an asthma attack, your airways become constricted:
With occupational asthma, lung inflammation may be triggered by one of two processes:
More than 300 workplace substances have been identified as possible causes of occupational asthma. These substances include:
You're at increased risk of developing occupational asthma if:
The longer you're exposed to a substance that causes occupational asthma, the worse your symptoms will 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 lung changes and lifetime asthma symptoms.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. Or, you may start by seeing a doctor who specializes in asthma (allergist/immunologist or pulmonologist).
Because appointments can be brief and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For occupational asthma some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment if you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnosing occupational asthma is similar to diagnosing other types of asthma. But with occupational asthma, your doctor will also try to identify whether a workplace irritant is causing your symptoms, and if so, what it may be. Your doctor will ask you a number of questions about your symptoms, your job and how they may be related. You'll need to provide a detailed description of working conditions at your present and previous jobs, and any possible asthma triggers you may have been exposed to.
An asthma diagnosis needs to be confirmed by tests that may include a lung (pulmonary) function test and an allergy skin prick test. Your doctor will want to make sure your symptoms aren't caused by another condition, such bronchitis. He or she may order blood tests, X-rays or other tests to rule out a cause other than occupational asthma.
Testing your lung function
Tests for specific lung irritants
A spirometer is a diagnostic device that measures the amount of air you're able to breathe in and out and the time it takes you to exhale completely after you take a deep breath. ...
Treatments and drugs
Avoiding the workplace irritant that causes your symptoms is critical. But that's easier said than done. Once you become sensitive to a substance, even tiny amounts of it may trigger asthma symptoms. As long as the substance is used in your workplace, it may still cause asthma symptoms even if you wear a mask or respirator. You may need medications to keep your symptoms under control and to prevent asthma attacks.
Treating asthma involves both preventing symptoms and treating an asthma attack in progress. Preventive, long-term control medications reduce the inflammation in your airways that leads to symptoms. Quick-relief (rescue) medications quickly open swollen airways that are limiting breathing. In some cases, medications to treat allergies are needed.
The right medication for you depends on a number of things, including your age, symptoms, asthma triggers and what seems to work best to keep your asthma under control.
Long-term control medications
Treatment for allergy-induced asthma
Don't rely only on quick-relief medications
If you do have an asthma flare-up, a quick-relief inhaler can ease your symptoms right away. But if your long-term control medications are working properly, you shouldn't need to use your quick-relief inhaler very often. Keep a record of how many puffs you use each week. If you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often than your doctor recommends, see your doctor. You probably need to adjust your long-term control medication.
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 other alternative treatments have been tried for asthma, but there's no clear, proven benefit from treatments such as:
Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements or trying homeopathy — some of these treatments may cause potentially dangerous side effects and may interact with other medications.
Coping and support
Occupational asthma can affect both your health and your career. If you're feeling overwhelmed, consider seeing a personal or career counselor or joining an asthma support group. Sharing your experiences with others may help you better understand your condition and take control of your treatment.
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 have a job in a high-risk profession, in the United States 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 that's 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.
Last Updated: 2011-05-19
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