I’m sure you can guess what occupational asthma is: asthma brought on by or made worse by certain work settings. But could you be at risk?
It’s important to discuss occupational asthma because it is the most common work-related lung disease in developed countries. It is hard to nail down the exact number or percentage of work related asthma cases, but in the US, up to 15% of asthma cases may be job-related.
Occupational asthma is caused by inhaling fumes, gases, dust or other potentially harmful substances while working. Often, symptoms are worse while working and improve when you have time off and start again when you go back to are away.
Individuals with a family history of allergies are more likely to develop occupational asthma, particularly to some substances such as flour, animals and latex. Also, smokers are at a greater risk for developing occupational asthma.
If you work in the petroleum or chemical industries, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide or ammonia can induce occupational asthma. If you are exposed to any of these substances at high concentrations, you may begin wheezing and experiencing other asthma symptoms immediately after exposure.
Allergies play a role in many cases of occupational asthma. This type of asthma generally develops only after months or years of exposure to a work-related substance. Your body’s immune system needs time to develop allergic antibodies or other immune responses to a particular substance.
Some examples of this allergy-induced occupational asthma are workers in the washing powder industry, who may develop an allergy to the enzymes of the bacteria, Bacillus subtilis. Another profession that could be subject to this is bakers. They may develop an allergy and occupational asthma symptoms from exposure to various flours or baking enzymes.
Veterinarians, fishermen and animal handlers in laboratories can develop allergic reactions to animal proteins. Healthcare workers can develop asthma from breathing in powdered proteins from latex gloves or from mixing powdered medications. About 5% of people working with laboratory animals or with powdered natural rubber latex gloves have developed occupational asthma.
Some other professionals who are at risk for occupational asthma are those engaged in spray painting, insulation installation and in manufacturing plastics, rubber and foam. These chemicals can cause occupational asthma in up to 10% of exposed workers.
The length of time you are exposed to a substance before it triggers your asthma varies. It can be months or years before symptoms occur. On the other hand, exposure to a high concentration of irritants can cause asthma within 24 hours.
Those who practice agricultural work are also at risk. Substances in aerosol form can lead to a buildup of histamine or acetylcholine in your lungs, which can casue asthma. Also, insecticides can cause a buildup of acetylcholine, which causes your airway muscles to contract and tighten.
Be aware: many people with persistent asthma symptoms caused by substances at work are incorrectly diagnosed as having bronchitis. If occupational asthma is not correctly diagnosed early, and you aren’t protected or removed from the exposure, it can cause permanent changes to your lungs.
An allergist/immunologist, often referred to as an allergist, is the best qualified physician to determine if your symptoms are allergy or asthma-related. We can properly diagnose the problem and develop a treatment plan to help you feel better and live better.
In some cases, pre-treatment with specific medications can be an option. In other situations, particularly if you are very allergic to a substance in your workplace, you may want to consider a career change.