Work-Related Asthma

Occupational asthma, also called work-related asthma, is the most common occupational lung disease in the United States. It affects about 15% of adults with asthma. It can cause wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. Symptoms may emerge hours after exposure to harmful substances or even months or years later.

Occupational asthma is costly for everyone, as it reduces worker productivity and quality of life.  It can also cause a financial burden to employees, families, businesses, and taxpayers.  Also, some employees become too disabled to work. Others must change jobs to avoid the substance that caused their asthma.

Work-related Asthma

Work-related asthma is asthma triggered by an exposure at work. Many asthma triggers can be found in the workplace.  More than 300 known or suspected substances in the workplace can cause or worsen asthma.  If you suspect you have work-related asthma, trying to avoid triggers can prevent your asthma from getting worse.

Here are a few things that commonly cause asthma in the workplace:

  • animal dander and insects
  • chlorine-based cleaning products
  • cigarette smoke
  • cockroach droppings
  • cold air
  • dust from wood, grain, flour, or green coffee beans
  • dust mites
  • gases such as ozone
  • indoor dampness and mold
  • irritant chemicals
  • metal dust
  • physical exertion
  • pollen and plants
  • strong fumes
  • vapors from chemicals
  • wood smoke

Worsening asthma or new onset asthma in a worker should raise questions about workplace causes. Asthma symptoms can develop shortly after exposure, or,as mentioned earlier, they can develop months or years after repeated exposures to harmful substances.

Symptoms for work-related asthma tend to get better on weekends, vacations, or other times when away from work. However, in some cases, symptoms do not improve until an extended time away from the exposure or trigger.

Diagnosing Work-Related Asthma

Work-related asthma can be diagnosed by your doctor. Tell your doctor about work exposures and possible asthma triggers, including your job, tasks, and the materials you use. Also consider logging when and where your symptoms occur to help determine any patterns. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and will conduct a physical examination. The doctor might also order one or more of the following tests:

  • breathing tests (e.g., peak flow readings and spirometry)
  • allergy tests such as skin or blood tests

If your doctor is concerned about something other than asthma, he/she might order other tests such as x-rays or imaging tests.

 What Should Employers Do

It depends on the type of exposures that are present in the workplace, but some employers may choose to create a medical surveillance program for their workers.  This includes monitoring employees over time at either the worksite or in a clinical setting. Employers can also create a questionnaire and, if necessary, follow-up testing.  In other settings, some additional testing can occur such as evaluating sensitivity with allergy skin tests.  Early identification of work-related asthma cases can lead to improved treatment response and even reduced doctor visits and/or hospitalizations.  If your employer does not have an established medical surveillance program, you can certainly speak with an occupational medicine physician to talk about monitoring options at your workplace.

One in 12 U.S. adults has asthma, according to the American Lung Association.  Do you have asthma? Do you think your workplace is making you sick? Follow the steps in the Guide to Controlling Asthma at Work to learn how you can keep your asthma in control.