Asthma associated with work is not typically a high-profile topic in the news, but it affects 16% of all American adults, according to the results of the new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Wheezing and coughing are common symptoms of work-related asthma, which is caused by irritant environmental triggers.
About 1.9 million American adults either develop asthma or experience worsening of symptoms in the workplace. “Work-related asthma is associated with increased disability, mortality, and adverse social and economic outcomes,” explained the lead author of the report, Jacek Mazurek, who is also the lead research epidemiologist at the division of respiratory disease studies from the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a press release.
Approximately one in every ten American adults has asthma, but work-related asthma may specifically impact patients’ quality of life, income and work productivity, which can lead to unemployment. The study revealed that in Missouri and Wisconsin, 23% and 21% of employees respectively have work-related asthma, making these regions the two states that lead the list, while at the bottom is Hawaii, with 9%.
Asthma flare-ups can be triggered by different environmental irritants, such as allergens, dust, smoke, fragrances and chemicals. Susan Tarlo, a respiratory physician and professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, also explained that there are two types of work-related asthma.
While suffering from asthma only in the workplace is called “occupational asthma,” suffering flare-ups of the existing condition due to the work conditions is called “work-exacerbated asthma.” “Work-exacerbated asthma is much more common,” stated Tarlo. “We’ve seen a decline in occupational asthma over time, but work-exacerbated asthma has continued to be common.”
The researchers also identified a list of jobs that may lead to closer contact with work-related asthma triggers, including positions in industrial plants, metal machine shops, welding shops, hospitals and laboratories, woodworking and furniture-making shops, hair and nail salons, and even department store staffers. “They’re spraying samples of perfume at you in department stores, and that’s definitely a chemical irritant,” said the pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, Len Horovitz.
House cleaners are also regularly exposed to potential asthma triggers, and the investigators reported that while the best solution may be to switch jobs, there are also several ways to prevent the exacerbated symptoms. Wearing protective breathing masks and improving ventilation at work, as well as avoiding potential triggers at home such as dust may help patients improve their quality of life and reduce allergies.
“For some patients with work-related asthma, it may be necessary for clinicians to remove or restrict the patient from direct or indirect contact with exposure in the workplace,” said Mazurek. However, he recognized that “jobs aren’t that easy to find these days. If the job is satisfactory for you, you should try to minimize your exposure to triggers in the workplace.”
According to another study, published last February, people with asthma avoid talking with their doctors about work-related asthma, since it is a difficult topic. However, effective communication on health topics is crucial for the patient–physician relationship. A total of 50,433 employed adults aged 18 years and older, with asthma were questioned about their communication patterns about asthma associated with work with their physicians or other health professional.