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Wheezing While You Work?
Breathing problems at work could be a sign of occupational asthma. Learn more about this condition.

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Wheezing While You Work?

Have you noticed a whistling or squeaking sound when you breathe? This is commonly known as wheezing. Along with chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath, wheezing can be a symptom of asthma.

If you have these symptoms mostly at work, you may have occupational asthma. But only a doctor can make that diagnosis. Occupational asthma is the most common workplace lung disease in the nation.

What types of substances can trigger asthma symptoms?
Occupational asthma is most common in industries with lots of airborne particles. Workplaces that are more likely to have dust, dirt or particles in the air might include plants that manufacture paint, lumber, metal and plastics, bakeries, hospitals, farms and grain elevators. Hundreds of workplace allergens and irritants have been identified.

Breathing in an allergen or particulate can trigger asthma symptoms by causing further inflammation in your airways.

Seeing your doctor
Whether your asthma is already diagnosed and getting worse, or you are wheezing for the first time, you should see a doctor. Wheezing, even minor, is a serious symptom.

Before seeing your doctor, be prepared to describe the kind of work you do and your working conditions. Your doctor will want to know if you are exposed to fumes, gases or smoke or if your work area is dusty or dirty. It would help if you bring Material Safety Data Sheets, which your employer is required by law to provide. These documents list all chemicals to which you are exposed at work. Be prepared to answer:

  • When did your asthma start? After you started a new job? After working in a different location?
  • Do you also have symptoms when you are away from work?
  • Can you identify anything at work that is triggering your symptoms?
  • Do you smoke? Smoking and being around secondhand smoke can trigger an asthma attack.

More about occupational asthma
It is important to avoid asthma triggers. If your asthma is work-related, discuss the situation with your doctor. Some patients may need to completely avoid exposure to irritants. You might also consider these steps:

  • Alert your employer. Together you can evaluate your work environment.
  • Change jobs or duties. You may be able to work in a different role or different location where you aren't exposed to asthma triggers.
  • Get additional training. If you are starting a new task, especially in a job where a lot of dust is kicked up, get training on how to minimize exposure to dusts. And make sure your respirator or other protective gear and clothing are all working right.

Louis Neipris, M.D., contributed to this report.

By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 02/26/2004
Updated on 08/25/2013
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic information. What is asthma?
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is asthma diagnosed?
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Employers, employees and worksites.
  • American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Occupational asthma.
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