Occupational Asthma

If you experience wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or shortness of breath at work, you may have occupational asthma.

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People with this condition usually work around chemical fumes, dust or other irritants in the air. If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma that has another cause, it can be worsened by airborne irritants at work. If you have asthma and suspect that your workplace is causing or worsening your symptoms, your allergist can help you manage your disease.

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that an estimated 11 million workers in a wide range of industries and occupations in the United States are exposed to at least one of the more than 250 substances known or believed to cause or exacerbate occupational asthma. Approximately 10 to 25 percent of adults with asthma experience occupational asthma. Triggers may include chemicals used in manufacturing; paints; cleaning products; dusts from wood, grain and flour; latex gloves; certain moldsanimals; and insects. Factors that increase the risk for developing occupational asthma include existing allergies or asthma, a family history of allergies or asthma, and cigarette smoking.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the following workers are at increased risk of developing occupational asthma:

  • Bakers
  • Detergent manufacturers
  • Drug manufacturers
  • Farmers
  • Grain elevator workers
  • Laboratory workers (especially those working with laboratory animals)
  • Metal workers
  • Millers
  • Plastics workers
  • Woodworkers

Proving Occupational Asthma

Is your asthma caused by your work? This question may be difficult to answer. You’ll need to answer other questions first, including:

  • Did your asthma start when you changed jobs?
  • Does your asthma improve when you are away from your job?
  • Do chemicals and other conditions at your workplace make it difficult to breathe?

Determining whether your asthma is work-related will require a thorough physical examination. Expect your allergist to:

  • Take a medical history that reviews whether any members of your family have allergies, asthma or other allergic diseases, such as eczema.
  • Ask you to describe your current and past jobs and whether or how they seem to relate to your asthma. You should be able to explain your job and job conditions, such as exposure to fumes, gases, smoke, irritants, chemicals and potential allergens. You should also discuss environmental conditions, such as heat, cold or dryness, as well as any manufacturing or processing conditions to which you are exposed.
  • Ask you about your attacks – how often they happen and what seems to trigger them.
  • Perform lung function tests, such as spirometry, a quick and painless test that measures airflow. You may be asked to stop by the doctor’s office to be tested before and after your shift at work.

Additonally, your allergist may perform skin tests and order chest X-rays and blood tests. If indicated, aerosol challenge studies may be considered.

It would be helpful for you to obtain details of your occupational exposures from your work supervisor, who may give you OSHA safety literature that describes possible work-related problems. Review and make available to your allergist the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each chemical to which you’re exposed at work.

Managing Occupational Asthma

The prevention and treatment of occupational asthma requires environmental interventions, including education on behavioral changes to avoid asthma triggers, along with drug therapies and careful medical follow-up. Whether you can avoid the things that trigger or worsen your asthma at work will depend on where you work and what you do there. If you suspect that your asthma is caused by conditions at work or if it worsens at work, talk to your allergist, who may recommend steps you can take to distance yourself from triggers or reduce their impact.

This page was reviewed for accuracy 6/28/2023.