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Workplace Asthma

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2021

Occupational asthma is a type of asthma caused or worsened by exposures in the workplace. The most common workplace triggers are wood dust, grain dust, fungi, and chemicals.1

Diagnosing workplace asthma is important. Once your doctor connects asthma symptoms to your work, you can find a treatment plan. Treatment usually involves drugs to manage symptoms and reducing exposure at work.

What are symptoms of workplace asthma?

Symptoms of job-related asthma are similar to other types of asthma. This includes:1

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing

Symptoms may happen right after you are exposed to the substance at work. Or, they may occur several hours after exposure. They may improve when you leave work. Many people say their symptoms get worse toward the end of the week and go away over the weekend.1,2

Some workers have a higher risk of this type of asthma, including:1,3

  • Bakers
  • Detergent manufacturers
  • Drug manufacturers
  • Farmers
  • Grain elevator workers
  • Laboratory workers
  • Metal workers
  • Plastics workers
  • Woodworkers

In the United States, companies are legally required to tell you if you work with hazardous chemicals. They must also protect you. This is done by showing you how to handle the chemicals and providing protective gear.1

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What causes workplace asthma?

Symptoms of asthma happen when the airway swells up and narrows. This reduces the amount of air that passes through the airway. Exposure to certain substances can trigger asthma symptoms for people with sensitive airways. These substances can be allergens or irritants. When these substances are related to your workplace, it is called occupational asthma.2

More than 250 workplace substances are known as possible triggers of this type of asthma. Examples include:1

  • Animals, such as dander
  • Chemicals used in paints, adhesives, and packaging
  • Enzymes used in detergents or flour
  • Metals, such as platinum and chromium
  • Plant materials
  • Airway irritants, such as chlorine gas or smoke

People with allergies or a family history of allergies have a higher risk of workplace asthma. Other risk factors may increase your risk of workplace asthma. For example, smoking and obesity can contribute.1

How is job-related asthma diagnosed?

An accurate diagnosis of workplace asthma is important. A wrong diagnosis may lead to continued exposure and worse symptoms. It can cause you financial and social stress.4

Doctors diagnose occupational asthma by connecting asthma symptoms to the work environment. They will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history. Some questions they may ask include:3

  • Whether your work environment changed when symptoms started
  • Whether you were exposed to irritants or allergens in the 24 hours before symptoms start
  • How your symptoms change on weekends and vacations
  • Details about your work history and duties at work
  • Whether you use protective equipment
  • Whether your coworkers have similar experiences

Your doctor may also perform tests to confirm that your asthma is work-related. You may do certain tests during work and then away from work. This can help them see if your airways are affected by the work environment. Tests they may recommend include:4

  • Bronchoprovocation tests
  • Lung function tests
  • Peak expiratory flow rates
  • Skin prick tests or blood work

How is occupational asthma treated?

Avoiding exposure to the work-related trigger is the best way to treat workplace asthma. This may include:1,2

  • Changing jobs, if possible
  • Moving to a different location at work with less exposure
  • Improving ventilation in the workplace
  • Using face masks and other protective equipment
  • Using a different, safer substance

However, it is not always possible to change jobs or reduce exposure at work. In these situations, your doctor can recommend asthma drugs. They may suggest quick-relief drugs (bronchodilators) that help relax the airway. They may also suggest controller drugs that you take every day to prevent and manage symptoms.2

For some people, allergy shots (allergen immunotherapy) may help. This involves exposing you to increasing doses of the allergen to decrease your sensitivity. This is only recommended if you know what allergen is causing symptoms. For example, veterinarians who are allergic to cats may benefit from allergy shots. It is important to note that immunotherapy is not available for all allergens.5

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle may also reduce your risk of workplace asthma. Some ways to reduce the risk of asthma attacks include:1

  • Quitting smoking
  • Staying up-to-date on vaccinations, including the yearly flu vaccine
  • Losing weight

Get emergency help if your symptoms become severe. Some signs of an asthma attack that need emergency treatment include:1

  • Rapid worsening of symptoms
  • No improvement in symptoms after using a quick-relief inhaler
  • Shortness of breath with minimal activity