Occupational Asthma

What is Occupational Asthma?

Occupational Asthma occurs when a person experiences asthma-like symptoms that are triggered or become worse when they breathe in certain substances while on the job. Hundreds of materials have been found to be common causes of occupational asthma. Some of the more frequent offenders include dust, gases, chemicals, animal dander, metals, plant proteins, and cleaning enzymes. Smokers and people with a family history or who already have pre-existing asthma or allergies are more likely to experience occupational asthma.

The lung inflammation that leads to breathing difficulties can be an allergic reaction that develops over time or a situational irritation that becomes apparent immediately. Workers from certain industries are more prone to developing occupational asthma. Just a few examples include healthcare workers, carpet makers, metal workers, seafood processors, textile workers, veterinarians, bakers, woodworkers, farmers, pharmaceutical workers, engineers, hairdressers, and vehicle manufacturers.

What are the Symptoms of Occupational Asthma?

Symptoms of occupational asthma are very similar to those that are caused by other forms of asthma and may include allergy-like symptoms as well. The most common are:

  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Eye irritation
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion

Depending on the substance and how long and often exposure lasts, symptoms might worsen throughout the workweek and improve over the weekend and during vacation. However, they can occur off the job as well and even continue once exposure has stopped.

Occupational Asthma Causes

Occupational or work-related asthma is a lung disease that affects workers as a result of their various occupations. There are more than 300 workplace substances that are possible causes of occupational asthma, including chemicals, enzymes, metals, animal materials, fish materials, insect materials and plant substances. Here are some of the most common:

  • Aldehydes, including formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, and urea formaldehyde
  • Amines, including monoethanolamine and dimethylethanolamine
  • Acids used to make adhesives, paints, varnishes, and laminates
  • Dyes, including levafix brilliant yellow E36, drimarene brilliant blue K-BL, and henna
  • Cleaning products
  • Latex gloves
  • Enzymes used in soaps, detergents, and flour conditioners
  • Pharmaceuticals, such as tetracycline, penicillin, cephalosporin, and hydralazine
  • Inorganic chemical metals, such as aluminum, platinum, nickel sulfate, and chromium
  • Animal materials, including proteins that are found in pet hair, dander, saliva; egg protein; and casein in cow’s milk
  • Fish materials, including crabs, prawns, and trout
  • Insect materials, including crickets, butterflies, moths, fruit flies, and mites
  • Plant substances, including proteins in flour, cereals, latex, cotton, wheat; wood dust and bark; grain dust, coffee beans, tea, buckwheat gluten, and mushrooms.

How is Occupational Asthma Treated?

Ideally, patients can prevent occupational asthma by avoiding the irritants that trigger the symptoms. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. In many cases, patients need to take medications to treat asthma attacks when they occur. The treatment that is used it depends on the asthma trigger as well as symptoms and the patient’s age. Inhaled corticosteroids are often prescribed, as are long- and short-acting beta agonists, leukotriene modifiers, theophylline, and combination inhalers. Allergy medications can be used in cases where allergy symptoms are also present.

Occupational Asthma Prevention

The National Institutes of Health notes that workers in some jobs have a higher risk of developing occupational asthma, such as bakers, farmers, drug manufacturers, detergent manufacturers, metal workers, laboratory workers, millers, woodworkers, and plastics workers. Workers in these and other high-risk professions can follow preventive measures to avoid the onset of occupational asthma, such as:

  • Avoiding or limiting exposure to known causes of occupational asthma
  • Not smoking
  • Observing all safety precautions on your employer’s material safety data sheet (MSDS)
  • Wearing personal respiratory equipment, such as masks and respirators
  • Working in ventilated spaces
  • Keeping work environments clean of dust, chemical residues, mold, and pet dander
  • Using a dehumidifier
  • Handling chemicals properly
  • Reporting all potential hazards to your employer immediately
  • Cleaning all chemical spills immediately
  • Wearing protective gloves and clothing