Causes and Symptoms of Work-related Asthma

Work-related asthma is associated with exposure to worksite irritants, allergens, and physical conditions called triggers. Some examples of asthma triggers are:

  • Animal dander and insects
  • Chlorine-based cleaning products
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Materials from cockroaches
  • 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 (e.g., ammonia, isocyanates, and solvents)
  • Wood smoke

For more information on triggers and related occupations, go to Occupations and Associated Exposures.

Woman Suffering From Cough

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What are the symptoms of work-related asthma?

Symptoms of work-related asthma are the same as symptoms for non-work-related asthma. They include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

Asthma symptoms can come and go, and some workers might not have all symptoms. Workers can get work-related asthma even when using personal protective equipment such as respirators or face masks. Sometimes, these breathing problems start at work and continue after the worker leaves work and exposure has stopped.

How do I know if I have work-related asthma?

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.

Your doctor can diagnose work-related asthma. Tell your doctor about work exposures and possible asthma triggers, including your job, tasks, and the materials you use. Also consider recording 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 tests, such as:

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

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

How is work-related asthma treated?

The most important step of treating asthma is stopping or reducing exposure to asthma triggers causing symptoms. Work with your doctor to develop a personal asthma control plan. Medical professionals often treat asthma with two general types of medicine:

  • Quick-relief rescue inhalers (e.g., albuterol, levalbuterol) to open the airways. People use these medicines to treat asthma attacks or flare-ups.
  • Long-term control medicines to reduce inflammation in the airways. People use these medicines to help keep asthma symptoms from occurring. When these medicines are working well, quick relief medicine is not used as much.