What is occupational asthma?

The link between your asthma and occupation

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long term respiratory condition where the airways are overly sensitive and get irritated easily. The symptoms include wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and having difficulty breathing. Asthma often develops during childhood or adolescence but it can affect anyone at any age. 

What is occupational asthma? 

Occupational asthma is where you develop asthma as a result of being exposed to dusty or chemical-heavy conditions as a result of your job. It is classed as occupational asthma if you only develop asthma symptoms after continued exposure to irritants in the workplace. 

What causes occupational asthma? 

Asthma can be triggered by a number of factors that cause irritation to the lungs. Occupational asthma is caused by continuously breathing in substances that you work closely with as part of your job. This commonly includes: 

  • A chemical called isocyanate which is found in car manufacture sprays 
  • Sawdust from wood 
  • Rosin-based solder flux which is released as a fume during assembly of electronics 
  • Metalworking fluids 
  • Chemicals 
  • Chloramines from the chlorine in swimming pools 
  • Animal fur, hair and saliva 
  • Dust from grain, poultry, mites and fungal spores 
  • Flour dust
  • Latex proteins and vapours from surgical equipment 

What workplaces are most at risk of occupational asthma? 

Certain workplaces require exposure to certain allergens or irritations. Work environments which have a high risk of occupational asthma include: 

  • Bakeries
  • Kitchens 
  • Flour Mills 
  • Hospitals 
  • Zoos 
  • Pet shops 
  • Animal laboratories 
  • Farms 
  • Garages 
  • Carpentry and woodwork workshops 
  • Engineering environments 
  • Metalwork environments 
  • Hairdressing salons 
  • Swimming pools 

How do I know if I have occupational asthma? 

There are many different types of asthma and occupational asthma occurs as a direct response to exposure to irritants within your workplace. You may have started to get symptoms after starting a new job, or they could have come on gradually after a long period of time. Your symptoms will either only occur while you are at work, or they may worsen at work. See your doctor as soon as possible to get a diagnosis so that you can get the appropriate treatment to manage your condition. 

What should I do if I think I have occupational asthma?

If you are experiencing symptoms of asthma (coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing) then report this to your GP. They will be able to do a series of tests to diagnose you with asthma. They may ask you when and where your symptoms occur and what environmental irritants you are exposed to. Try to give as much information as you can so that they can identify the problem. They may ask you to keep a diary to record your symptoms so that you can identify what is triggering them. You should also let your employer know that this is affecting you so that they can take appropriate health and safety measures. 

How to cope with occupational asthma 

Occupational asthma will usually go away if you deal with it quickly and stop having exposure to the trigger. This will mean changing jobs to a different type of workplace. This is not always possible or practical right away however so taking steps to manage your symptoms should be your first priority. This includes: 

  • Having the correct type of asthma inhalers 
  • Having a written asthma plan in case of an asthma attack 
  • Letting your employer know so that they can take steps to limit your exposure to the irritant 
  • Wearing any available safety equipment which can help to cover your nose and mouth while you are working 

View all asthma treatments

Sources: 

Asthma UK> Occupational Asthma
Medline Plus> Occupational Asthma

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