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What is occupational asthma and how is it treated?

Asthma: Anyone who has it or knows someone who suffers from the affliction is aware of asthma's frightening effects. Out of the blue, an asthma sufferer can start coughing, wheezing or gasping for breath. Often, a sufferer must stop everything he or she is doing and seek relief from an inhaler. When an asthma attack happens to a person who is performing a critical function such as driving or operating heavy equipment, it could result in a serious accident.

What causes occupational asthma?

When asthma stems from work conditions, it's called occupational asthma. Exposure to atmospheric dust, chemical fumes, gases and other substances can cause asthma in an otherwise healthy person, or they can exacerbate asthma in a person who already suffers from the affliction.

There are two types of occupational asthma:

Allergy-caused asthma - Example: a previously healthy nurse can develop an allergy through continued exposure to the powdered dust that lines latex gloves. Histamines build up in the lungs, and exposure to other sources of dust, fumes, or gases can then result in an asthma attack. With allergy-caused asthma, there is usually a latency period of a few weeks to several years before the effects appear.

Irritant-caused asthma - Example: a chemical industry worker is exposed to ammonia, triggering immediate asthma-like symptoms.

A large number of substances, gases and fumes can trigger occupational asthma, including:

  • Chemicals found in adhesives, carpeting, insulation, dyes, or detergents
  • Dust from cotton, flax, and hemp textiles
  • Proteins in animal or human hair
  • Gases such as chlorine, ammonia, or sulfur dioxide
  • Smoke from a building fire
  • Metals such as platinum, chromium, and nickel sulfate
  • Dust from flour, grains, and green coffee beans

A person can develop occupational asthma in practically any workplace. But the list indicates that certain workers are particularly vulnerable, such as:

  • Bakers
  • Carpenters and woodworkers
  • Chemical industry workers
  • Firefighters
  • Hairdressers
  • Healthcare workers
  • Production workers using adhesives or spray paint
  • Textile workers
  • Veterinarians and animal handlers

Prevention and treatment of occupational asthma

If your asthma symptoms are worse on days when you work or lessen in severity on your days off, you could be suffering from occupational asthma. In that case, your doctor should refer you to an asthma specialist.

Even tiny amounts of substances can trigger asthma symptoms. Using a respirator or mask can help. There are a number of inhaled and ingested medications that can control the effects of asthma, including:

Long-term daily medications

  • Corticosteroids (inhaled)
  • Long-acting beta agonists (inhaled)
  • Leukotriene modifiers (ingested)
  • Theophylline (ingested)

Quick relief medications

  • Ipratropium (Atrovent HFA)
  • Bronchodilator medications
  • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids

There are also treatments for allergy-induced asthma, including inhaled and ingested drugs and immunotherapy medications.

If your asthma limits your ability to work or results in an accident and serious injuries, you may also want to speak with a workers' compensation attorney.

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