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Could your workplace be making you sick, placing you at risk of the respiratory disorders of chronic bronchitis and asthma?

An occupational disease is any disease you end up with primarily as a result of working where you do, while a work-related disease is one in which things you're exposed to in your job are one of the contributing factors [1]. Countless thousands of workers worldwide fall victim to job-related health hazards, most commonly exposure to carcinogens, noise, airborne particles, and unsafe working conditions that lead to direct physical injury, but stress at work can make you sick too [2]. 

As varied as jobs can be, there's one thing we all do at work — breathe. When what we breathe in is dangerous, the results can be chronic, in the form of industrial bronchitis and occupational asthma. What professions are most likely to place you at risk of these chronic respiratory conditions, and should you be worried about your own health?

Occupations Linked To Industrial Bronchitis

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes that leads to shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. It can be acute or chronic, viral, bacterial, or irritant-induced, and if exposure to harmful substances in your workplace is the primary cause, it's called industrial or occupational bronchitis. 

Substances frequently linked to occupational bronchitis include asbestos, cotton, silica, coal, flax, latex, talc, metals, western red cedar, and toluene diisocyanate. [3] Previous research has found that people who work in the agriculture, food processing, paper, wood, textile, and chemical industries are most at risk of developing chronic occupational bronchitis, while those who work in construction, the cleaning industry, and metal heating are not safe either [4]. Anyone exposed to irritant gases, fumes, and other substances over the long term can develop occupational bronchitis, however, and common household chemicals can cause 'occupational bronchitis' even if your job is being a home maker. Newspaper workers, for instance, don't work in a paper plant but are exposed to the same substances, thus also placing them at risk of chronic bronchitis [5], while warehouse, electronic manufacturing, postal, and packing workers are likewise in danger [6]. Nail technicians are in yet another at-risk profession [7]. 

All in all, it's estimated that around 15 percent of chronic bronchitis cases are the result of workplace exposure to irritants [8]. 

Occupational Asthma: Who Is At Risk?

Occupational asthma is the most prevalent workplace disease in industrialized nations [4], and once again, around 15 percent of total asthma cases are thought to be related to workplace substance exposure. With its inflammation and narrowing of the airways, asthma produces similar symptoms as bronchitis — wheezing, coughing, and (extreme) shortness of breath. Unlike bronchitis, asthma is always chronic [9], though it can often be managed so well that you will not suffer from symptoms on a daily basis. 

Substances linked to occupational asthma include ammonia, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and isocyanates. These substances are most commonly found in the chemical industry and the petroleum industry. Because allergies also play a large role in the development of asthma, however, and it may take long-term exposure to develop them, veterinarians fisherman, and other people who handle animals for a living are also at risk of developing occupational asthma. Healthcare workers may develop occupational asthma after long-term exposure to latex gloves and medications, meanwhile. [9]

I Think I Have Industrial Bronchitis Or Occupational Asthma: What Next?

Anyone suffering from shortness of breath, extreme coughing, and wheezing needs to see a doctor — period. Not only is not being able to breathe properly really scary, asthma attacks can be fatal. Note that there is some overlap between the two conditions — many people with asthma also suffer from bronchitis, and on the other hand, many people who are initially diagnosed with bronchitis actually have asthma. [9, 4] A full set of diagnostic tests is necessary to accurately determine what your problem is. That is, don't assume you know what you have from looking around on the internet and then start looking for over-the-counter medications that treat chronic bronchitis or asthma — proper treatment necessitates a proper diagnosis!

If you are diagnosed with industrial bronchitis or occupational asthma, removing the irritants that triggered your condition from your life can really help to relieve your symptoms [3, 9]. Acute bronchitis can often pass without long-term consequences after initial treatment, but it is important to minimize, or if at all possible remove, exposure to the irritant culprit from your life. This may mean that seeking another job is the best answer, or it may mean arranging different workplace responsibilities with your employer. In addition to this measure, you may have to take regular medications, which will in both cases include bronchodilators and often steroids. 

In some cases, you will be able to receive disability benefits or compensation from your employer after developing workplace-caused lung diseases [10]. This is something that depends on where you live, and you will have to check your local laws. 

Can Occupational Asthma And Bronchitis Be Prevented?

What if you work in an at-risk industry but don't have occupational bronchitis or asthma? Can they be prevented? Besides industry-wide and company-specific limitation of exposure to substances strongly associated with these two respiratory diseases (which can include air filtration and better exposure to outdoor air), workers should wearing protective masks and clothing where possible. Get screened regularly if you are in an at-risk profession, and don't smoke. [3, 11]

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