Work has been hard, but you can manage it. Suddenly one day you are short of breath or your chest is tight. You need to break more frequently. You-and your coworkers-notice that you are no longer whistling while you work. You are wheezing. You go to the doctor and find out you have asthma.
You are not alone. About 11 million workers in the United States are exposed daily to airborne agents that can cause asthma. As many as 600,000 people in the United States have work-related asthma.
There are two types of occupational asthma. Irritant-induced asthma occurs abruptly after exposure. Immunological asthma, on the other hand, occurs after long-term sensitization. Asthmatics tend to get irritant-induced asthma, while non-asthmatics tend to develop respiratory difficulty after years of exposure.
Occupational asthma is most common in industries with high levels of airborne particles, even where exposure protection is provided.
In fact, the problem of work-related asthma often occurs in settings where both the employer and employees make every effort to keep respiratory hazards to a minimum. Thus, wheezing or other asthma-related symptoms come on unexpectedly, requiring some investigation after the obvious (a spill or other accident) is ruled out.
High-risk industries include working in plastics, metals and baked goods, and milling, farming, grain elevator operation and laboratory work.
Whether you already have asthma or not, something can be done for wheezing at work. Labored breathing is not in your job description. Consider these possibilities:
- Job change within the same factory. You may be working in a different part of the manufacturing plant where exposures or levels of exposures to certain particles are higher than your prior location.
- Different threshold. The upper limit for you to develop reactive airways (asthma) may be lower than someone else. This is true even among asthmatics as well as with people who have never wheezed in their life.
- Watch your technique. If you are starting a new task, particularly in a job where a lot of dust is kicked up, get training, or a refresher course, on how to minimize exposure to dusts.
- Check your equipment. Make sure the respirator or other protective gear and clothing are all up to date and functioning properly.
Whether your asthma is getting worse or you are wheezing for the first time, do not delay seeing a doctor. Even if the cause is not determined, and even if you are fine the next day, you need to be seen, properly diagnosed and treated. Wheezing, even minor, is a serious symptom. There is no such thing as “a touch of asthma.” A little annoying cough today may turn into a life-threatening asthma attack tomorrow.