Lung Diseases You May Get on the Job

If you find yourself wheezing or have a cough you can't seem to shake, you could have a lung disease that's related to the type of work you do. From farming to construction, there are lots of jobs that raise your chances of getting breathing problems. Learn the early warning signs so you can get the treatment you need and find out ways to prevent the disease from taking hold.

Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

Asbestos, a fireproof material found in older homes and buildings, can take a serious toll on your lungs. When you breathe in tiny, sharp asbestos fibers, they irritate your lung tissues and create a thick layer of scar tissue.

Decades later, you can get a condition called asbestosis. Your symptoms may include shortness of breath and a crackling noise when you breathe in.

Breathing in asbestos fibers can also cause mesothelioma. It's a cancer that attacks the mesothelium, the thin layer of tissue that lines the chest and belly.

Although asbestos is banned in most new construction, you're still at risk if you have a job that involves working on older buildings, such as a carpenter, plumber, or demolition expert. Wear respirator masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to help prevent asbestos-related illness.

Asthma

Asthma is a long-term condition that makes it hard to breathe. You could have shortness of breath, pain in your chest, or wheezing.

It happens because the cells that line your airway start to swell as a reaction to something in the environment, such as pollen, pollution, or an industrial chemical. That limits the amount of air that can pass through.

Your irritated airway cells may make the problem worse when they churn out mucus that makes breathing more difficult. Your doctor will probably treat your asthma with corticosteroids, which are inhaled medications that open up the blocked passageways.

Anyone can get asthma, but breathing in irritating chemicals or dust at your job may raise your chances of getting the disease. If you work at a construction site, lab, or factory, you can cut your risk by wearing a respirator mask.

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Bronchiolitis Obliterans

Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare condition that damages the bronchioles -- tiny passageways that direct the air you breathe to the air sacs of your lungs. A bunch of workplace chemicals can cause the disease.

You may have higher chances of getting bronchiolitis obliterans if you work in a place where you come into contact with things like:

  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Welding fumes
  • Some food-flavoring chemicals

Some symptoms of bronchiolitis obliterans crop up about 2 to 8 weeks after you breathe in the fumes of these chemicals. You may have problems such as:

  • Dry cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

To prevent these symptoms, wear an approved mask at work to keep irritants out of your airways. There's no cure for the disease, but your doctor may suggest treatments like immune-suppressing drugs or corticosteroids.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Most people think of COPD as a disease that you get from smoking cigarettes. But dust, smoke, or chemical fumes at your job can also trigger it. When you breathe them in, your lungs get inflamed and irritated. Over time, this can bring on long-term symptoms, such as:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing

To prevent this disease, use a protective mask so you won't get harmful chemicals into your lungs. If you already have COPD, treatments like oral steroids and supplemental oxygen may ease your symptoms.

Pneumoconiosis

You may have heard this condition called by its informal name: black lung disease. It can happen to coal miners who breathe in mineral dust on a regular basis.

As the dust gathers in your lungs, your immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- starts to react to the buildup.

If you have pneumoconiosis, you may have problems like:

  • Lung tissue damage
  • Long-term cough

Shortness of breath

Wear a respirator mask on the job to keep coal dust out of your airways and prevent the disease.

Once pneumoconiosis has developed, it can't be cured, since your lungs aren't able to clear dense mineral buildup. But medicine you breathe in, called bronchodilators, may ease symptoms and make you more comfortable.

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Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis

When you breathe in things such as wood shavings, bird droppings, or mold spores, your immune system usually reacts for a short time, then returns to normal. But if you have hypersensitivity pneumonitis, your immune system doesn't calm down after the substance is gone. You may get a long period of swelling of your lung tissue.

The symptoms of hypersensitivity pneumonitis can include:

Doctors don't fully understand why certain people get hypersensitivity pneumonitis, but your chances of coming down with it are higher if you work in certain kinds of jobs, such as a farmer, pet store worker, or construction worker. Some types of the disease have informal names that refer to the type of substance that brings on symptoms, such as famer's lung or bird fancier's lung.

If you have this condition, your doctor will recommend that you to stay away from the substance that's causing problems and take immune-suppressing drugs like corticosteroids.

Lung Cancer

You can get lung cancer if your job puts you in contact with asbestos, radiation, or chemicals like cadmium and arsenic.

Rates of lung cancer are especially high for workers who breathe in asbestos fibers and even higher in those who also smoke cigarettes. Always wear gloves and masks at work that shield you from toxic chemicals.

Treatment of lung cancer depends on the type you have and the stage it's in. Your doctor may suggest chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or targeted therapy drugs that keep cancer from growing and spreading.

Silicosis

Dust you breathe in on the job can hurt your delicate lung tissues. One of the most common dust sources is silica, a mineral in building materials like concrete, sandstone, and rock.

When you cut or crush these materials, they release fine powdered silica, which lodges in your lungs, much like coal dust. This can lead to silicosis, which causes symptoms like shortness of breath and weight loss.

Silicosis can also raise your chances of getting tuberculosis, another serious lung disease, as well as kidney disease and autoimmune diseases.

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Your doctor may suggest treatments like corticosteroids that you breathe in or lung lavage (washing). They can often help ease your symptoms, but they don't cure the illness.

If you're a construction worker who drills rock, saws tile, or grinds concrete, wear an approved respirator mask to protect yourself from silicosis. You can also ask your employer to take steps to limit how much silica dust you're exposed to, such as installing a ventilation system that removes particles from the air.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 20, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Oregon State University: "Environmental Health and Safety: When is Asbestos Dangerous?"

National Cancer Institute: "Malignant Mesothelioma," "Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk."

Mayo Clinic: "Asbestosis," Asthma," "Bronchioles and Alveoli in the Lungs," "COPD."

Journal of Thoracic Disease: "Chemotherapy Treatment in Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma: A Difficult History," "Occupational Exposure and Lung Cancer."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Asthma," "Employers, Employees, and Worksites," "Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis."

National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences: "Bronchiolitis obliterans."

Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Occupational Exposures."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Pneumoconiosis."

CDC: "Silicosis: Learn the Facts!" "How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?" "Preventing Silicosis."

Merck Manual: "Silicosis."

American Lung Association: "Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors."

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