Spring is in the air, which means it’s peak season for asthma and allergy sufferers, of which there are many. In fact, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America – which has designated May as National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month – asthma affects more than 25-million Americans, and over 50-million Americans contend with a variety of allergies.
Particularly at this time of year – when plants and flowers are in full bloom – we tend to lay allergy and asthma blame on the great outdoors. What many people don’t know, however, is that in up to 15 percent of U.S. asthma cases that finger of blame actually should be pointed at places of work. This is absolutely true – you can be allergic to your workplace; it’s a condition called occupational asthma.
Occupational asthma is nothing to sneeze at, as it’s responsible for some 24.5 million missed days of work nationwide each year, and it has become the most common work-related lung disease in developed countries.
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology defines occupational asthma as a type of asthma caused by inhaling fumes, gases, dust, or other potentially harmful substances while on the job. Symptoms of occupational asthma are similar to those associated with other types of asthma, including:
- shortness of breath;
- chest tightness;
- nasal congestion;
- eye irritation and tearing.
Not surprisingly, the symptoms of occupational asthma worsen as the workday unfolds. Conversely, said symptoms often subside when one is away from work, such as on weekends and during vacations. When detected and treated early, occupational asthma may be reversible. Unfortunately, in the absence of early detection and treatment, occupational asthma can result in heightened symptoms and even lifelong asthma.
There is no shortage when it comes to possible causes of occupational asthma. In fact, more than 300 potential culprits have been identified. While there are far too many to name individually, following are some categorized examples:
- Animal substances – this would include proteins found in dander, hair, scales, fur, saliva, and bodily wastes.
- Chemicals – acids and some of the other ingredients found in paints, varnishes, adhesives, laminates, and soldering resin. Other possible contributors include chemicals used to make insulation, packaging materials, foam mattresses, and upholstery.
- Enzymes – specifically those used in detergents and flour conditioners.
- Metals – particularly platinum, chromium, and nickel sulfate.
- Plant substances – this is a broad category covering proteins found in natural rubber latex, flour, cereals, cotton, flax, hemp, rye, wheat, and papain.
- Respiratory irritants – such irritants include gas, sulfur dioxide, and smoke.
While no employee is immune from occupational asthma, workers in the following fields are at a higher risk:
- adhesive handlers;
- carpet makers;
- cleaning personnel;
- detergent manufacturers;
- forestry workers;
- grain-elevator operators;
- health-care personnel;
- metal workers;
- pharmaceutical manufacturers;
- seafood processors;
- textile workers;
- those exposed to epoxy resins, insulation, plastics, shellac, and spray paint;
- veterinarians (and others who work with animals).
Navigating Occupational Asthma
If you’re experiencing occupational-asthma symptoms, the first step is to be evaluated by a primary care physician who may prescribe:
- quick-relief medicines called bronchodilators;
- asthma-control medications that are taken daily to ward off symptoms.
Your primary care physician also may refer you to an allergist/immunologist for a more in-depth assessment and ongoing treatment.
Regarding the workplace itself, the first step is to separate yourself from whatever substance is causing your occupational asthma. Even a small amount of the offending substance can trigger an asthma attack, so it’s essential that you are completely isolated from the source. If such separation isn’t possible, a change of jobs – as difficult as this can be to do – may be necessary for the sake of your health.
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