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Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is asthma caused by, or worsened by, exposure to substances in the workplace. These substances may cause asthma in one of 3 ways:

  • An allergic reaction (like people with allergies who develop allergic asthma)
  • An irritant reaction (like a person that reacts to smoking with asthma)
  • A reaction which results in chemicals that occur naturally in the body, building up in the lung and resulting in an asthma attack

Examples of occupational asthma -- also called work-related asthma -- include:

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  • Health care workers who develop an allergy to latex gloves by breathing in the powdered proteins from the inner lining of the gloves
  • Workers in the chemical industry who are exposed to substances like ammonia and develop symptoms of asthma as the result of an irritant effects, not an allergic reaction

There are numerous substances used in various industries that can trigger occupational asthma including:

  • Chemicals such as adhesives, shellac and lacquer, plastics, epoxy resins, carpeting, foam and rubber, insulation, dyes (textile workers), and enzymes in detergents
  • Proteins in animal hair and/or dander
  • Grains, green coffee beans, and papain (an extract of papaya that may trigger a latex allergy)
  • Cotton, flax, and hemp dust, commonly found in the textile industry
  • Metals such as platinum, chromium, nickel sulfate, and soldering fumes


How Do I Know If My Asthma Could Be Work-Related?

Generally, if your asthma symptoms are worse on days that you work, improve when you are at home for any length of time (weekends, vacations) and then recur when you return to work, occupational asthma should be considered.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Occupational Asthma?

Symptoms of occupational asthma include general symptoms of an asthma attack, such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulty. Eye irritation, nasal congestion, and/or runny nose may also be present. As stated previously, this can be allergy-related or an irritant reaction from exposure to asthma triggers in the workplace.

If you think you have occupational asthma, ask your health care provider about a referral to an asthma specialist. The specialist will perform a detailed exam, including taking your past medical history and reviewing current breathing problems. After any necessary asthma tests, the specialist will develop an asthma treatment plan, which will include asthma medications, such as bronchodilators, asthma inhalers, and inhaled steroids to control your asthma. It will also be important to avoid any asthma triggers at work.

How Do I Prevent Asthma Attacks If I Have Occupational Asthma?

Preventing asthma symptoms by reducing exposure to the triggers at work is the most important step you can take to reduce the occurrence of occupational asthma. It's also important to use appropriate asthma medication to prevent symptoms. Even with the right asthma medications, continued exposure at work can make asthma more difficult to control.

OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is a government agency that has created guidelines that determine acceptable levels of exposure to substances that may cause asthma. Employers are required to follow these rules.

However, if in a particular job, exposure to asthma triggers is unavoidable, most employers are willing to assist the employee to find a more suitable workplace. Once it has been determined what causes your asthma, discuss with your health care provider how best to approach your employer and what precautions need to be taken.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on May 23, 2014
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