All About Work-Related Asthma

Occupational asthma is a lung disease in which the airways overreact to dust, vapors, gases, smoke or fumes that exist in the workplace.

"While anyone can get occupational asthma, you're at highest risk if your family has a history of asthma or allergies and you frequently encounter irritating substances at work," says Norman Edelman, M.D., medical affairs consultant for the American Lung Association in New York. "Health experts estimate as much as 15 percent of asthma may be occupation-related."

A few of these irritants and allergens are:

  • Chemical fumes. Workers in certain manufacturing and processing plants can be exposed to them.

  • Animal dander, mites or airborne fungi. Veterinarians and those who work around animals are at risk.

  • Soybeans. Farmers who grow soybeans and those who process soybeans are at risk.

  • Flours. So-called baker's asthma can affect anyone working in a kitchen or food-processing job.

Symptoms

As with any form of asthma, the symptoms of occupational asthma include wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest, chronic coughing and shortness of breath.

Symptoms usually occur while the worker is exposed to a particular substance at work; but, in some cases, they may develop several hours after the person leaves work and then subside before he or she returns to the job the next day.

In the early stages, symptoms usually decrease or disappear during weekends or vacations, only to recur when a person returns to work.

Questions to ask

If you get asthma as an adult, it's possible something in your workplace is the cause.

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may have work-related asthma and should see your doctor for a diagnosis:

  • Do you get asthma attacks at work or when you're doing a certain job at your workplace?

  • Do the attacks happen more often during the hours you're at work?

  • Do you suffer fewer attacks when you're away from work or on vacation?

  • Has your asthma gotten worse since you started a new job or moved to a new work area?

  • Do you also develop allergy symptoms, such as runny or itchy nose, itchy or watery eyes, sneezing or itchy skin, when you're at work?

"If you think your job is making you sick, see your doctor so you can receive an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment," says Dr. Edelman.

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