Occupational Asthma: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Occupational asthma, also known as work-related asthma, is a lung disease that occurs when individuals are exposed to certain chemicals, irritants or allergens in the workplace. The biggest difference between occupational asthma and other types of asthma is that it is often reversible when workplace irritants are no longer exposed.

This article details various occupational asthma irritants, some of the most dangerous jobs, treatment and prevention.

Examples of occupational asthma

There are three common causes of occupational asthma: allergic reactions, irritant reactions or “irritant occupational asthma” (II-OA), and accumulation of chemicals or “sensitizer occupational asthma” (SI-OA), and ultimately lead to asthma attacks.

Healthcare: Asthma from Latex Allergy

Health care workers can develop occupational asthma from inhaling dust particles from latex gloves or other latex items.

Chemical industry: asthma caused by irritants

Irritant-induced occupational asthma is caused by a variety of chemicals, including:

  • gas: chlorine, sulfur dioxide, Nitrogen oxides
  • acid: acetic acid, hydrochloric acid, Hydrofluoric acid
  • base: ammonia, Calcium Oxide, Hydrazine
  • fungicide: ethylene oxidefumigant, Insecticide
  • Halogenated derivatives: Uranium hexafluoridehydrogen, and Carbonyl fluoride
  • Solvent: Tetrachloroethylene
  • Smoke: diesel exhaust, paint smoke, fire smoke
  • Spray: Paint, Floor Sealer

Textile Industry: Asthma from Linen, Cotton and Hemp Dust

Textile workers can develop occupational asthma from inhaling dust from linen, cotton, and hemp. Dust particles can cause lung irritation and inflammation, and cause allergic reactions.

Agricultural workers: Asthma caused by pesticide buildup

When inhaled over time, the particles that make up Insecticide It can damage the lining of the airways and cause allergic reactions.

who is at risk

People who are regularly exposed to common asthma triggers at work are at increased risk of developing occupational asthma. Substances that can trigger occupational asthma include:

  • sawdust
  • grain dust
  • animal dander
  • fungus
  • Chemicals
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workers at increased risk

Workers most likely to be exposed to one or more of these triggers include:

  • Bakers
  • detergent manufacturer
  • drug manufacturer
  • farmer
  • Grain elevator worker
  • Laboratory staff (especially those working with laboratory animals)
  • metal worker
  • Millers
  • plastic worker
  • carpentry

Diagnosis and Treatment of Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is often underdiagnosed. A 2019 study surveyed 50,000 workers with asthma. They found that only 11.7% had told their healthcare provider that their asthma was work-related, and only 9.1% had learned from their healthcare provider that their asthma was work-related.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17 percent of adult asthma cases are related to occupational exposure.

Symptoms of occupational asthma

Symptoms of occupational asthma are often the same as other types of asthma. They can include:

  • cough
  • respite
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness

How do I know if my asthma is work-related?

You can’t tell if your asthma is work-related until you meet with your healthcare provider or allergist for an evaluation.

A health care provider or allergist will perform a physical exam to determine your lung function. They will then ask about your medical history and the symptoms you are currently experiencing.

You can expect them to ask detailed questions about your work environment and potential allergens. They’ll want to know when your asthma symptoms started, and they might even ask how you’re feeling when you’re not working.

Occupational asthma and bronchitis

Identify symptoms of occupational asthma and bronchitis separate. They were all accompanied by coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

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However, bronchitis may go away on its own after a few days or weeks, whereas occupational asthma does not go away until the allergen is removed. If your cough persists for several months and recurs for more than two years, you may have chronic bronchitis.

How to tell the difference between asthma and chronic bronchitis

when to see a doctor

If you think you may have occupational asthma, make an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. See your doctor right away for asthma symptoms that don’t improve with a rescue inhaler, or if you have trouble breathing or if your lips or nails are blue or purple.

How to deal with occupational asthma


Most allergists will work with their asthma patient to develop an asthma treatment plan. This usually involves identifying and avoiding asthma triggers, as well as using rescue inhalers to treat asthma attacks. Occupational asthma is treated the same way.

Treatment of occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is one of the most treatable types of asthma because it is often reversible when the irritant or allergen is removed.


Occupational asthma can be misdiagnosed or not treated at all. This can mean years of exposure to irritants, which can lead to permanent lung damage.


Ideally, prevention of occupational asthma starts at the employer level, avoiding the use of common asthma triggers. But this is not always possible, depending on the individual’s employment and financial needs.

Ongoing screening is another level of prevention that employers can use to help determine whether occupational asthma is prevalent in their workforce.

Discuss your diagnosis with your employer to determine options for eliminating or minimizing your exposure to occupational asthma triggers. By law, your employer must make reasonable accommodations so that you can continue to work. It could be as simple as a healthcare worker swapping out latex gloves for a hypoallergenic alternative.


Occupational asthma is asthma induced by a person’s work environment. It covers everything from agriculture to healthcare and many other industries in between. These symptoms can be confused with other lung diseases such as bronchitis.

If you experience asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath at work but feel better on weekends or vacations, talk to your healthcare provider about occupational asthma.

VigorTip words

Fortunately, occupational asthma is usually reversible if workplace irritants are removed. Most employers are willing and able to work with people with occupational asthma to eliminate exposure, or to make reasonable adjustments to ensure they do not put employees at unnecessary risk. There is no reason to ignore your asthma symptoms or be afraid to speak out about how they affect you at work.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How to prove occupational asthma?

    To prove occupational asthma, you must work with your healthcare provider or allergist. They will discuss your symptoms, health history, work history and work environment with you.

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  • What is the most common cause of occupational asthma?

    Substances or chemicals in the form of vapors, dusts, gases and fumes are the most common causes of occupational asthma.

  • How to get rid of occupational asthma?

    Occupational asthma is usually reversible when the allergen is removed.