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Asthma Library: What triggers Asthma

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is the most prevalent work-related lung disease in developed countries. Up to 15 percent of asthma cases in the United States may be related to factors that workers are exposed to on the job.

The incidence of occupational asthma varies by industry. In the detergent industry, inhalation of a particular enzyme used to produce washing powders has led to the development of respiratory symptoms in approximately 25 percent of exposed employees. Up to 50 percent of employees in the printing professions experience respiratory symptoms after constant exposure to gum acacia. Isocyanates, chemicals that are widely used during spray painting, insulation installation, and in manufacturing plastics, rubber and foam, cause asthma in 10 percent of exposed workers.

Sometimes people who have never experienced symptoms of asthma develop the disease for the first time in their work environment. In patients who know they have asthma, the condition may worsen because of exposures within their workplace. The condition may persist for a long time — even after they are no longer exposed to the irritants that triggered it. It’s common for symptoms to worsen through the work week, improve on the weekend and recur when a worker returns to the job.

A family history of allergies makes a person more likely to suffer from occupational asthma. Workers who smoke are at greater risk for developing asthma following some occupational exposures. It can take months to years after an occupational exposure before symptoms occur.

Many workers with persistent asthma symptoms caused by irritants in the workplace are incorrectly diagnosed as having bronchitis. People living near these factories may also be exposed to asthma triggers and suffer symptoms as well.

Once the cause of a worker’s asthma is identified, exposure levels should be reduced. A worker could, for example, be moved to another job within the plant, and work areas should be closely monitored so that exposure to asthma-causing substances is kept at the lowest possible levels.

An allergist should evaluate individuals with occupational asthma. In some cases, pre-treatment with specific medications to counteract the effects of substances at work may be helpful.

Some common substances that cause occupational asthma include:




Animal proteins

Cereal grains














Wood dust

Source: The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology


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