Man using a skill saw to cut wood with dust coming off
People in occupations, such as home builders, painters and plastic workers, may be especially at risk of developing occupational asthma.

Occupational Asthma

Different subtypes of asthma may develop depending on the cause or the onset of symptoms. One common subtype is occupational asthma.

According to The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology in the United States, about 15% of asthma cases may be related to employment.

What is Occupational Asthma?

Occupational asthma is a form of asthma that occurs due to inhaling certain lung irritants on the job. People with occupational asthma may quickly develop symptoms after exposure to lung irritants. In other instances, repeated exposure after several weeks or months may lead to the condition.

It is also possible to have other forms of asthma, such as allergic asthma, and also have occupational asthma. In fact, people who already have asthma may develop worsened symptoms after exposure to a certain substance on the job. Individuals who have allergies or a family history of asthma are at an increased risk for developing occupational asthma.

What Causes Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is caused by breathing in fumes, such as dust, gases and other irritating substances on the job. According to the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are over 250 chemicals that are thought to increase or cause symptoms of occupational asthma.

These chemicals are used in a wide variety of jobs and industries, including manufacturing, farming and construction. For example, fumes from grain, mold and plastics can be irritating to the lungs when inhaled. People in occupations such as home builders, painters and plastic workers, may be especially at risk.

Symptoms of Occupational Asthma

Symptoms of occupational asthma may develop during or shortly after inhaling the lung irritant. In some instances, symptoms may be worse when you are on the job and exposed to the substance. Symptoms may improve on days away from work and start back up when you return to the job.

Some people develop long-lasting symptoms that occur even when they are away from work. Typically, the longer you are exposed to the substance, the more likely you are to have ongoing asthma symptoms.

The severity of symptoms may vary based on the chemical or fume inhaled, how often you are exposed to the substance, and other lung diseases or allergies you may have.

Common symptoms of occupational asthma are similar to other forms of asthma and include the following:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
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Treatment for Occupational Asthma

Treatment is similar to treating other types of asthma. It involves a combination of lifestyle changes and medications. Treatment also includes identifying the triggers and reducing exposure.

Since the trigger is fumes or chemicals inhaled while on the job, it can be challenging to reduce exposure. You don’t have to quit your job to decrease exposure to occupational lung irritants, though.

Occupational safety regulations and standards require employers to provide protection from potentially irritating substances. Work with your employer to determine the best ways to decrease your exposure. This may involve improved ventilation, wearing a mask or alternative responsibilities.

Additional treatment includes lifestyle modifications, such as stopping smoking, getting an annual flu shot and decreasing exposure to other potential allergens.

One of the main ways to manage and treat occupational asthma is with medications. Different classifications of drugs are used depending on the severity and frequency of symptoms.

Medications may include:

Fast-Acting Bronchodilators

These medications reduce sudden symptoms during a flare up of symptoms by relaxing the airway muscles. They may be taken through an inhaler or a nebulizer. Common fast-acting inhalers include Albuterol and Xopenex.

Long-Acting Bronchodilators

Long-acting medications are not used to treat sudden attacks, but they can be effective in preventing flare-ups. They also relax the muscles of the airways, which helps open them up to make breathing easier. Common long-acting bronchodilators include Tiotropium and Brovona.


Inhaled steroids may also be helpful in treating airway inflammation that can develop in occupational asthma. Corticosteroids are taken daily to prevent symptoms. They do not treat a sudden asthma attack. Common inhaled steroids include Flovent and Qvar.

Combination Medications

Medications that combine a long-acting bronchodilator and a steroid are sometimes used for treatment. They are also taken once or twice daily to prevent symptoms. Common combination medications include Advair and Breo.

In instances when symptoms are severe, oral or intravenous steroids may be given to reduce an asthma attack. These types of steroids are given in the short term. They also tend to have more side effects than inhaled steroids.

If you have the occupational type, it’s vital to talk with your employer and doctor to develop a plan to treat the condition. Your doctor can provide you with a written asthma action plan, which explains how to monitor your symptoms, treat flare-ups and what to do in an asthma emergency.