Occupational Asthma: How it Progresses and What to Do About It

Asthma is a condition whereby the body, specifically the respiratory system, experiences erratic air flow and exhibits hypersensitivity to otherwise harmless items. Asthma can be inborn or developed over time.

In the UK, 90% of asthma cases are attributed to hypersensitivity to materials present in the occupational environment. For instance, bakers or pasta makers can experience asthma due to flour. Similarly, wood workers or loggers can have a hypersensitive reaction to sawdust. Other common irritants found in the workplace are sprays, metals, adhesives and resins. Materials that cause asthmatic reactions are called sensitizers.

How it Progresses

The body has natural defense mechanisms that target infections and other foreign materials. In some cases, the body’s defenses tend to overreact and start defending against harmless objects. This is known as a hypersensitivity reaction.

With asthma, the defenses found in the lungs and airways are extra sensitive to materials such as dust and other foreign bodies. Their battles against these foreign bodies often cause inflammatory reactions in the airways.

Unfortunately, if the walls of the airways become inflamed, the openings become narrow and air is unable to pass through. If this happens, medications must be given immediately in order to open the airways and allow the patient to breathe.


For a patient to be diagnosed with occupational asthma, two factors need to be present. First, the asthma appears to worsen during work days. That is, the condition happens during or after work. Second, the asthma symptoms seem to disappear when away from work for a certain period of time. This means that the patient doesn’t experience any symptoms when on holiday or while taking a leave.

Doctors need to know the patient’s full medical history in order to successfully diagnose the asthma as occupational. Workers are encouraged to keep a health journal at home and at work so that doctors can accurately trace the cause of the disease.


Once a patient is diagnosed with occupational asthma, the patient should immediately reduce exposure to the causative factors. Most patients do not have to change jobs so long as they use proper protective equipment. Patients can also talk to their employers to see if they can be given different roles in the work place.

Coupled with the reduction of the patient’s exposure is adequate medical treatment. There are two types of medications for asthma patients namely preventers and relievers.

Preventers are anti-inflammatory medications that impede the onset of hypersensitivity reactions. Among these are corticosteroids, leukotrienes and mast cell stabilizers. Relievers on the other hand are medicines that dilate the airways once inflammation occurs. Some of the common relievers are salbutamol and formoterol.

Statistics and Claims

In the UK, at least 1 in 10 cases of asthma is due to occupational hazards. Almost half of those experience a great loss in their income due to medical expenses. This prompts them to quit and change jobs. For those who opt to stay in their respective workplaces, they have an average of 14 days of leaves and absences per year. This causes great monetary losses for the patients and decreased productivity for the company.

Companies are required to inform their workers if there are any sensitizers present in the work place. Also, employers are required to provide protective gear for their employees to prevent them from developing late-onset asthma. If workers can provide proof that their employers were unable to follow these, they are entitled for compensation claims.