Allergies on the Job: 7 Workplace Irritants

PHOTo Common sources of workplace allergens are shown in these file photos.

To many employees, the workplace can be a source of irritation -- for reasons other than their boss, co-workers or paychecks.

Something in your physical surroundings may act as an irritant that triggers an allergic reaction or asthmatic symptoms in susceptible workers.

Of course, some professions have a higher risk of possible exposure to allergic or asthmatic triggers than others. Although there can be plenty of dust in the offices of people in white-collar occupations, dust mites can also annoy warehouse, maintenance and construction workers.

Still, dust can come in many forms: Wood dust may be troublesome to carpenters and woodworkers, and food dust from flour could irk bakers, pastry chefs and pizza makers.

Seasonal pollen allergies can be a real nuisance to those who work outdoors as landscapers, postal carriers or on highway maintenance crews.

Any number of jobs at manufacturing plants or refineries can cause employees to regularly breathe in chemical vapors that may bother nasal and lung passageways.

According to the World Health Organization, workplace exposure to fumes, gases or dust are responsible for 11 percent of asthma cases worldwide. And some estimates suggest that roughly 20 percent of new cases of asthma in adults are work related.

Compared to your surroundings at home, you have less control over the work environment, said Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, a professor of medicine in the division of allergy and immunology section at the University of Cincinnati.

You have less control over the ventilation system, the location where you work, how often it gets cleaned, the temperature and humidity, and even the materials used on the job. These factors can influence your risk of work-related reactions.

But not all symptoms that erupt at work are from allergies or asthma. Often they are a reaction to irritants.

"There are lots of funky reactions that people may have been told are caused by allergies that probably aren't," said Dr. Karin Pacheco, an assistant professor in the division of environmental and occupational medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver.

These symptoms come from being exposed to an irritant and may include irritated eyes, headache, tightness in the throat, post-nasal drip and feeling bad, in general. These complaints are not always long-lasting and tend to go away with less exposure to them, she said.

An allergist is not the only health professional who may diagnose these reactions. Sometimes you might touch or be exposed to a material at work that affects your skin, and you would visit a dermatologist if it doesn't clear up or happens frequently.

"In an irritant reaction, the skin looks red and feels a little painful," said Dr. Mathew Avram, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "In an allergic reaction, there's more intense itching and blistering of the skin."

Get Your Questions Answered at the OnCall+ Allergy Center

Whether you're sneezing, wheezing or getting rashes on the job, here's a rundown of seven common workplace troublemakers.

Latex Allergy

A woman who runs an Italian restaurant around the corner from the offices of Dr. Clifford Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, came to see him after she had a life-threatening allergic reaction and she didn't know why.

"One of my hats is to be an investigator," Bassett said.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...