What is Occupational Asthma?
Asthma caused by breathing in hazardous substances in the workplace is called ""occupational asthma."" Asthma can affect your ability to work and overall quality of life. It can even threaten your life.
How Does it Work?
Patients suffering from occupational asthma often may not realize their symptoms are work-related. Symptoms of occupational asthma are the same as regular asthma and may include any or all these chest symptoms: cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness. An asthmatic patient my fail to recognize the work relationship to their asthma as symptoms often begin several hours after exposure. Occupational asthma symptoms usually become worse during the workday and throughout the work week. Symptoms may be immediate (less than 1 hour), delayed (more commonly, 2 to 8 hours after exposure), or nocturnal. They usually decrease over the weekend, or days off and during vacations, but may take a week or more. However, workplace exposure to sensitizing chemicals or dusts can induce asthma often persisting after the exposure has stopped. Initial symptoms may occur after high-level exposure (spill).
What Causes It?
Several hundred substances found in the workplace have been found to be respiratory sensitizers with more being identified all the time. The list below is a broad indication of substances known to be respiratory sensitizers and their common work activities. It is not exhaustive and many known sensitizers are not identified here:
Substance Groups Common Activities
Isocyanates Vehicle spray painting, foam manufacture
Flour/grain/hay Handling grain at docks, milling, malting, baking
Electronic soldering flux Soldering, electronic assembly, computer manufacturing
Latex rubber Gloves in health care, laboratories
Laboratory animals Laboratory animal work
Wood dusts Saw milling, woodworking, and furniture manufacture
Glues/resins Curing glues and epoxy resins in joinery and construction
Gluteraldehyde Health Care
Hair dyes Hairdressers
Penicillins/cephalosporins Pharmaceutical industry
Chromium compounds Welding stainless steel
Platinum salts Catalyst manufacture
Cobalt Hard metal production, diamond polishing
Nickel sulphate Electroplating
Subtilisin/enzymes Detergent manufacture
What Should I Do If I Have Occupational Asthma?
If you are having work-related air flow limitation make an appointment with your Allergy Partners Physician telling him/her your symptoms, where you work, what your job is and what chemicals and materials you work with daily. Take chemical fact sheets to your Allergy Partners Physician. Lung function monitoring may include serial charting with a peak flow meter for 2 to 3 weeks (2 weeks at work and up to 1week off work as needed to identify or exclude work-related changes in peak expiratory flow.) Record when symptoms and exposures occur and when a rescue inhaled bronchodilator is used. Measure and record peak flows every 2 hours at work and away from work.
What is the Treatment?
Allergy Partners Physicians are trained in additional, specialized evaluations to include immunologic testing and confirmatory evaluations such as detailed pulmonary function testing and bronchial challenges.
The patient is encouraged to work with on-site health providers or managers/supervisors discussing avoidance of the initiating agent, ventilation, respiratory protection, and tobacco smoke-free environments.
If your Allergy Partners Physician tells you that you have occupational asthma, you should be removed from the work area or job to prevent it from getting worse. Occupational asthma is a serious illness. Lack of appropriate treatment can lead to permanent disability. Early recognition and treatment are paramount in keeping this illness from getting worse.
Patient confidentiality issues are particularly important in work-related asthma. As even general inquires about the potential adverse health effects of work exposures may occasionally result in reprisals such as job loss, occupational asthma patients need to be informed of this possibility and be full partners in the decision to approach management regarding the effects or control of workplace exposures.