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Occupational Asthma – You Might Be Allergic to Work

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) Americans that get allergies or asthma while at work might actually be allergic to work. In fact, up to 15% of adult asthma cases in the United States have contributing factors that are directly job related. This type of asthma is termed occupational asthma and accounts for about 24.5 million missed work days each year.

Occupational Asthma Defined
The AAAAI defines occupational asthma as a lung disorder caused by inhaling fumes, gases, dust or other potentially harmful substances while on the job. Some symptoms of occupational asthma include chest tightness, cough, wheezing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, difficulty exercising, and sometimes runny nose, nasal congestion and eye irritation. While the symptoms may improve during the weekend and be mild at the start of the workweek, they often worsen as a person works through the workweek so that by Friday some major symptoms can occur.

Whether you have a history of allergies or have never experienced allergies or asthma in your life, you could be at risk for developing occupational asthma. Michael C. Zacharisen, MD, FAAAAI, and Chair of the AAAAI’s Occupational Disease Committee warns that “a personal history or family history of allergies can make a person more likely to develop occupational asthma…However, symptoms can develop for the first time in someone who has no history of allergies or asthma if exposed to conditions that trigger it."

Proper Diagnosis is the First Step to Battling Occupational Asthma
Workers who feel they have symptoms of occupational asthma or who think they are being exposed to a potential trigger of asthma should consult an allergist/immunologist to discuss this potential hazard. An allergist/immunologist can provide an evaluation and proper diagnosis for patients who might be interacting agents in the workplace that have the potential to increase a patient’s risk of developing asthma. Pre-treatment with medications to counteract the asthmatic effects of workplace triggers might be helpful for some patients while others may need to change their work environment in order to completely avoid the hazardous work materials or environment.

Sometimes patients with occupational asthma are incorrectly diagnosed as having bronchitis and, because of the incorrect diagnosis, the patient is not protected or removed from the workplace exposure. If a worker is in continual contact with substances at work that contribute to asthma without medication or other treatment permanent lung changes may occur and asthma symptoms may persist even without exposure to the triggers.

Workers in Many Industries Experience Job Related Asthma and Allergies
The numbers of workers who experience occupational asthma varies depending on the occupation industry. Some of the highest incidences of occupational asthma occur in people manufacturing detergent, people working with laboratory animals, people working with powdered natural latex gloves, and industries using chemicals such as spray painting, insulation installation, and plastic, rubber and foam manufacturing.

The detergent industry marks some of the highest percentages of occupational asthma because inhalation of a particular enzyme used to produce washing powders has led to the development of respiratory symptoms in approximately 25% of exposed employees. For those working with laboratory animals and latex cloves instances of occupational asthma development are at about 5% of workers. The chemicals used in many industries (spray panting, insulation installation, and manufacturing plastics, rubber, and foam) can cause asthma in about 10% of workers exposed to the chemicals. There has also been known to be an occasional case of occupational asthma due to an accident at work involving a high exposure to irritating fumes or dusts.

Treatment for Occupational Asthma
Once symptoms are recognized, proper diagnosis is made, and an allergist/immunologist has identified the cause of a patient’s asthma, steps can be made to reduce expsorue levels. For example, a worker could be moved to another job within the plant or wear a facemask to prevent inhalation of a trigger substance. Employers that work with known asthma-inducing substances can also be proactive in reducing health risks to employees. Employers could pre-screening potential employees with lung function tests and then continue to test for symptoms after certain periods on the job once the worker has been hired to ensure that he or she has not developed asthma. Work areas should be closely monitored so that exposure to asthma-causing substances is kept at the lowest possible levels. These steps to reduce exposure to asthma triggers in the workplace can contribute to improved health among employees and a more productive workplace.

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