What is Occupational Asthma?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 April 2020
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Occupational asthma is also called a work-related breathing condition. Asthma creates restriction in the airways making breathing difficult and it can have many causes. One of these causes is an exposure to some element, chemical, gas, or substance at work, which creates an asthmatic response. This tends to get worse with greater exposure, though some people could work around the same substance for years prior to having any form of reaction to it.

Some of the symptoms of occupational asthma make it distinguishable from other types. Asthma symptoms tend to be most aggressive during the workweek and might recess or go away completely when people have a few days off. Symptoms can get worse too, and what might start out as a little wheezing gradually progresses to full-on attacks. Since certain substances may provoke allergic response, of which asthma may be part, people might also have allergy symptoms too, like stuffy nose, irritated eyes or skin irritation.


When various people are exposed to the same chemical substances not all of them will get occupational asthma, suggesting there may be a genetic component to who develops this workplace illness. Certain substances and chemicals are known irritants and responsible employers meet this challenge by having employees wear respirators to minimize risk. On the other hand there are plenty of things that people might work around regularly, where respirator use is not likely. Bakers, hairdressers and dog groomers, for instance, could all develop asthma from things they use regularly like flour, chemicals for perms and hair dyes, and pet hair. Waitresses can’t use respirators either and yet they may spend hours each day exposed to second hand smoke.

What is known about this exposure is that it tends to worsen symptoms as it continues and even treatment of occupational asthma with a variety of medicines can’t be fully effective if people remain exposed. In fact, catching this illness early and reporting symptoms of shortness of breath, cough or wheezing may be important to clearing up the condition quickly. The unfortunate aspect of the illness from an occupational standpoint is that many people cannot remain in their same line of work, due to likelihood of greater problems should contact with chemicals keep occurring. Sometimes people are able to receive job placement elsewhere in a company since this is a work-related condition, but even trace elements of the irritating substance can keep this illness active and prevent healing.

The standard treatment for occupational asthma is to first identify irritants creating the problem and to remove people from contact with them. This is followed with use of short and possibly long acting inhalers to keep the illness under control. Without exposure to irritants, asthma may totally disappear.

In unstable job markets, a cure for occupational asthma that involves leaving work isn’t likely to be met with great enthusiasm. People should be directed to supporting agencies that might help with job retraining and placement, or that could assist those afflicted with applying for things like disability benefits. Some people are able to remain in a work setting, provided accommodations can be made that eliminate exposure to known irritants, and this plus supportive medical treatment is certainly the best-case scenario.



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