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Occupational asthma is a type of work-related asthma, caused when a substance you work with on a daily basis irritates your airways. It can lead to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. There are two common types of occupational asthma. One is caused by allergy and repeated exposure to the substance(s) and the other, work aggravated asthma, is asthma that exists already but is made worse by something in the workplace.

What is occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma is usually caused or made worse by breathing in substances you work with. It can also be a result of your working conditions. The symptoms of occupational asthma are the same as allergic asthma. They include a tight chest, shortness of breath and wheezing.

The only way to get rid of symptoms altogether is avoiding the substance that’s causing the asthma. Occupational asthma can also be managed and treated with medications that treat the symptoms.

How is it different from other types of asthma?

Work-related asthma includes occupational asthma (caused by an allergy
to something at work), work aggravated asthma (WAA) and irritant induced asthma (IIA) which can happen after a spillage or after a one-off high exposure to an irritant.

Occupational (allergy-related) asthma can be reversed if it’s caught early, unlike allergic asthma. If it’s not treated, your symptoms will probably get worse over time and eventually lead to lifelong asthma.

With occupational asthma your symptoms might get worse the more time you spend in the workplace, and get better when you’re away from work, although you might have symptoms away from work too.

What is the difference between occupational asthma and work aggravated asthma?

Asthma is often made worse by irritant chemicals and substances you breathe in while you’re at work, or your general working conditions.

The difference between work aggravated asthma (WAA) and allergic asthma is that with WAA you already have asthma symptoms when you’re not at work, but being at work makes them worse. Although it’s commonly due to something you breathe in, it can also be caused by physical factors such as changes in temperature (especially from cold air); physical activity or even stress. A recent review found that more than one in five workers with asthma have WAA.

If you need to use your reliever inhaler or medicine more often during working hours, your job could be making your symptoms worse.

What are the symptoms of occupational asthma?

The obvious symptoms could be anything from a persistent cough and shortness of breath, to chest tightness and wheezing. These are caused by airborne allergens irritating your lungs as you breathe them in. There are also early warning signs that could indicate you’re developing an allergy to something at work. These can include Itching, sneezing and/or a runny nose.

If you notice any of these symptoms and they carry on for more than a few weeks, you might be developing an allergy and you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

How do you treat occupational asthma?

If you can't avoid your asthma triggers, your doctor should be able to prescribe suitable asthma medicine. You may also be advised to take antihistamines.

Your employer has a duty under the Health Safety at Work Act 1974 to make sure that any risks you come across while you’re at work are minimised. If you develop asthma or your existing asthma is getting worse due to your job, speak to your employer about things they can do to help you.

There are occupational health experts and specialists who can advise employers about ways to control irritant substances and conditions, and your employer should let you know what they plan to do once they’ve taken advice. Your employer also needs to notify the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who might visit the workplace and offer advice on how to reduce the risks.

How can you prevent occupational asthma?

Reducing your exposure to the triggers is the most important thing you can do, along with using the right medication to control any symptoms you have. Continued exposure can make your symptoms worse, even with medication.

The Health and Safety Executive has published regulations which set out acceptable levels of exposure to substances that may cause asthma. Employers are required to follow these rules.

If it’s not possible to avoid the trigger for your asthma symptoms, you might have to work with your employer to find a way of reducing your exposure or even changing your workplace.

Can you get compensation for occupational asthma?

You may be able to claim compensation if a doctor assesses your symptoms and finds that your level of disability is at least 14 per cent. Any payment will only be made from the date you claim compensation, it can’t be backdated, so if you think it applies to you, you’ll need to claim as early as possible.

If you’ve been told by a medical professional that your asthma has been caused by your job, get advice as soon as possible about whether you can claim compensation through the courts. You could also be eligible for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in some circumstances.

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