Occupational Asthma

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Occupational Asthma


Occupational asthma is a form of lung disease in which the breathing passages shrink, swell, or become inflamed or congested as a result of exposure to irritants in the workplace.


As many as 15% of all cases of asthma may be related to on-the-job exposure to:

  • animal hair
  • dander
  • dust composed of bacteria, protein, or organic matter like cereal, grains, cotton, and flax
  • fumes created by metal soldering
  • insulation and packaging materials
  • mites and other insects
  • paints

Hundreds of different types of jobs involve exposure to substances that could trigger occupational asthma, but only a small fraction of people who do such work develop this disorder. Occupational asthma is most apt to affect workers who have personal or family histories of allergies or asthma, or who are often required to handle or breathe dust or fumes created by especially irritating material.

Causes and symptoms

Although occupational asthma is not new, today, more than 240 causes of occupational asthma have been identified. It was probably first recorded in 1713 when one of the fathers of occupational health, Bernadina Ramazzini said bakers and textile workers had problems with coughing shortness of breath, hoarseness and asthma. Even short-term exposure to low levels of one or more irritating substances can cause a very sensitive person to develop symptoms of occupational asthma. A person who has occupational asthma has one or more symptoms, including coughing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and wheezing. Symptoms may appear less than 24 hours after the person is first exposed to the irritant or develop two or three years later.

At first, symptoms appear while the person is at work or several hours after the end of the workday. Symptoms disappear or diminish when the person spends time away from the workplace and return or intensify when exposure is renewed.

As the condition becomes more advanced, symptoms sometimes occur even when the person is not in the workplace. Symptoms may also develop in response to minor sources of lung irritation.


Alice Hamilton was born on February 27, 1869, in New York City, the second of five children born to Montgomery Hamilton, a wholesale grocer, and Gertrude (Pond) Hamilton. She earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1893, without having completed an undergraduate degree and taking surprisingly few science courses. Realizing that she wanted to pursue research rather than medical practice, Hamilton went on to do further studies both in the United States and abroad: from 18951896 at Leipzig and Munich; 18961897 at Johns Hopkins; and 1902 in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. In 1897 she accepted a post as professor of pathology at the Women's Medical College at Northwestern University in Chicago.

In Chicago Hamilton became a resident of Hull House, the pioneering settlement designed to give care and advice to the poor of Chicago. Here, under the influence of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, Hamilton saw the effects of poverty up close, leading her to a lifelong career focused on industrial medicine.

Alice Hamilton was a pioneer in correcting the medical problems caused by industrialization, awakening the country in the early twentieth century to the dangers of industrial poisons and hazardous working conditions. Through her untiring efforts, toxic substances in the lead, mining, painting, pottery, and rayon industries were exposed and legislation passed to protect workers. She was also a champion of worker's compensation laws, and was instrumental in bringing about this type of legislation in the state of Illinois. A medical doctor and researcher, she was the first woman of faculty status at Harvard University, and was a consultant on governmental commissions, both domestic and foreign.

Occupations Associated With Asthma

Animal Handling


Health Care

Jewelry Making

Laboratory Work

Manufacturing Detergents

Nickel Plating


Snow Crab and Egg Processing



An allergist, occupational medicine specialist, or a doctor who treats lung disease performs a thorough physical examination and takes a medical history that explores:

  • the kind of work the patient has done
  • the types of exposures the patient may have experienced
  • what symptoms the patient has had
  • when, how often, and how severely symptoms have occurred

Performed before and after work, pulmonary function tests can show how job-related exposures affect the airway. Laboratory analysis of blood and sputum may confirm a diagnosis of workplace asthma. To pinpoint the cause more precisely, the doctor may ask the patient to inhale specific substances and monitor the body's response to them. This is called a challenge test.


The most effective treatment for occupational asthma is to reduce or eliminate exposure to symptom-producing substances.

Medication may be prescribed for workers who can not prevent occasional exposure. Leukotriene modifiers (montelukast and zafirlukast) are new drugs that help manage asthma. They work by counteracting leukotrienes, which are substances released by white blood cells in the lung that cause the air passages to constrict and promote mucus secretion. Leukotriene modifiers also fight off some forms of rhinitis, an added bonus for people with asthma. Medication, physical therapy, and breathing aids may be needed to relieve symptoms of advanced occupational asthma involving airway damage.

A patient who has occupational asthma should learn what causes symptoms and how to control them, and what to do when an asthma attack occurs.

Because asthma symptoms and the substances that provoke them can change, a patient who has occupational asthma should be closely monitored by a family physician, allergist, or doctor who specializes in occupational medicine or lung disease.


Occupational can be reversible. However, continued exposure to the symptom-producing substance can cause permanent lung damage. Follow-up studies of people with occupational asthma show that some cannot be protected from the exposure or are forced to change jobs, lose their jobs, or have worse prospects for future jobs based on their allergies and asthma.

In time, occupational asthma can cause asthma-like symptoms to occur when the patient is exposed to tobacco smoke, household dust, and other ordinary irritants.

Smoking aggravates symptoms of occupational asthma. Patients who eliminate workplace exposure and stop smoking are more apt to recover fully than those who change jobs but continue to smoke.


Industries and environments where employees have a heightened exposure to substances known to cause occupational asthma can take measures to diminish or eliminate the amount of pollution in the atmosphere or decrease the number of exposed workers.

Regular medical screening of workers in these environments may enable doctors to diagnose occupational asthma before permanent lung damage takes place.



"Allergic to Work? Occupational Asthma Accounts for Up to 18 Million Lost Working Days a Year and Affects Thousand of Workers." The Safety & Health Practitioner September 2004: 38-41.

Solomon, Gina, Elizabeth H. Humphreys, and Mark D. Miller. "Asthma and the Environment: Connecting the Dots: What Role Do Environmental Exposures Play in the Rising Prevalence and Severity of Asthma?" Contemporary Peditatrics August 2004: 73-81.

"What's New in: Asthma and Allergic Rhinitis." Pulse September 20, 2004: 50.


American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 85 West Algonquin Road, Suite 550, Arlington Heights, IL 60005. (847) 427-1200.

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Occupational Asthma

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Occupational Asthma