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Occupational Lung Disease

Identification of a Wide Variety of Occupational Lung Diseases

An occupational lung disease rarely happens overnight. It usually takes years - sometimes even decades - of exposure to respiratory irritants before a patient realizes something is wrong with their respiratory system.

The pulmonologists at University Hospitals ensure patients receive the most accurate diagnosis through a careful step-by-step process that includes:

  • Determine the substance to which you’ve been exposed, and consider the dose-response relationship. The more you’ve been exposed to a specific irritant, the more likely you’ve developed a particular disorder.
  • Evaluate the latency period. That’s the time between exposure and the onset of symptoms.
  • Explore your response to the irritant. Have you become sensitized to it? Allergic to it? Has it adversely affected your lungs?
  • Examine the symptoms and determine if they fall into a disease classification.Rule out other causes for the symptoms through a differential diagnosis.

Team Approach Benefits Occupational Lung Disease Patients

The body is made up of organs that work together like a well-oiled machine. When one organ struggles, others may struggle as well. That’s why the pulmonary specialists at University Hospitals develop care plans collaboratively with other specialists including:

  • Cardiologists: Breathlessness may stem from the heart, the lungs or both.
  • Ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists: Sometimes problems in your throat can trigger lung issues, and vice versa.
  • Allergists: With occupational exposure to a substance, you run the risk of aggravating pre-existing allergies or developing new ones. Our multidisciplinary approach provides the best chance for recovery or long-term disease management of occupational lung disease.

Occupational Lung Disease Treatment

Our pulmonary specialists offer treatment and pulmonary rehabilitation therapies for many work-related conditions that affect the lungs and respiratory system, including:

Occupational asthma: The most common of work-related lung disorders, occupational asthma happens when an employee is exposed to an irritant that triggers asthma symptoms, such as wheezing, for the first time. A similar condition called work-exacerbated asthma occurs when someone who already has asthma, unrelated to work experiences, develops worsening asthma symptoms due to irritants in the workplace.

Agents that often contribute to occupational asthma include baking flour and enzymes, animal dander, plastics, sealants, spray paints, wood particles, adhesives, sulfates in hair products and gasses and fumes.

Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RAD): This condition happens when someone develops asthma after being exposed to fumes or smoke. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing and trouble breathing.

Pneumoconiosis: This affects workers who are exposed to asbestos, silica (rock and sand dust) and coal dust. This condition often begins without symptoms and progresses to shortness of breath, a cough and chest tightness. Left untreated, pneumoconiosis can cause lung scarring.

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis, also called extrinsic allergic alveolitis: This affects people who inhale organic or agricultural dust such as animal or plant proteins, bacteria, fungus spores from moldy hay, bird droppings and other sources.

The more common pneumonitis conditions are known as farmer’s lung, bird fancier’s lung, humidifier lung and hot tub lung. Many patients who suffer from pneumonitis experience flu-like symptoms that go away, but then return when exposed again.

Bronchiolitis: This occurs when small airways become infected and clogged with mucus. Textile workers exposed to dust from hemp, flax or cotton may suffer from a bronchiolitis called byssinosis or brown lung disease.

University Hospitals’ pulmonary team works with patients first to understand the disease they face, and then to develop a plan to recover their lung health.For more information about any occupational lung issues, contact one of our team members.