Occupational lung disease

Overview

Being diagnosed with an occupational lung disease can feel overwhelming and frightening. There are many types of occupational lung diseases and the medical information you receive may be complex. How each condition is diagnosed and managed and the impact it has on your day-to-day life varies, but there are resources and services to support you to live well.

What are occupational lung diseases?

The term occupational lung disease (also known as work-related lung diseases) covers a wide variety of lung conditions which are caused by breathing in dust, fumes, gases or other hazardous agents in the work environment. These diseases vary greatly in their nature, depending on the hazardous agent and the protective measures implemented to reduce or manage exposure. They may be acute or chronic, malignant or non-malignant, or infectious.

Types of occupational lung diseases

Although there are many different occupational lung diseases, common types :

What causes occupational lung disease?

Occupational lung diseases can be caused by a wide range of hazardous agents, and in many cases, the cause may not be known. Depending on the type of hazardous agent you are exposed to, symptoms may develop immediately or could surface months, years or decades after exposure. With many occupational lung diseases, symptoms may only present long after your exposure to the hazardous agent has stopped, or even after you have retired from the workforce.

How are occupational lung diseases diagnosed?

Each occupational lung disease is diagnosed differently using particular tests. The first step to a diagnosis, in any circumstance, is a discussion with your GP about your medical and occupational history, including symptoms (if relevant) and any previous or current exposure to hazardous agents.

Occupational lung diseases can be difficult to diagnose. To confirm the diagnosis, your GP is likely to refer you to a respiratory specialist or an occupational specialist doctor, such as an occupational physician.

Information about which tests are used to diagnose specific conditions can be found on their relevant pages.

Self-management of occupational lung diseases

There is currently no cure for most occupational lung diseases. However, there are ways you can take care of your health and manage your disease day-to-day to help improve how you feel. Using these self-management strategies, in conjunction with other disease-specific management options potentially available to you, can help slow progression of symptoms, keep your disease well-managed, and improve your overall quality of life.

Prevent further exposure

Further exposure hazardous agents could result in your disease progressing or worsening symptoms. It is essential to avoid further exposure; this may mean modifying the way you work, changing occupations, or leaving the workforce entirely. It can be confronting and challenging to consider, however it is paramount to reduce the risk of further damage to your lungs.

Quit smoking and/or vaping

Smoking can make an occupational lung disease worse and may cause other lung diseases. It is critical to quit smoking or vaping to help improve lung health. Quitting can be difficult; for support to quit, talk to your GP or connect with a Quitline counsellor or an online service like QuitCoach.

Avoid excessive alcohol and illicit substances

You may feel using alcohol and/or illicit substances will help you cope with what you are going through. Drinking too much alcohol and/or using illicit substances will make you feel worse and can become very destructive, very quickly. Instead of engaging in these activities, discover healthier ways to cope and reduce your use like exercise or trying a new hobby. For support, talk to your GP or connect with an alcohol and drug service.

Exercise

Exercise has many benefits. When living with an occupational lung disease, regular exercise is important to help reduce symptoms like breathlessness and improve your ability to do everyday activities. Consult with your healthcare team to know what type and how much exercise is right for you. An exercise physiologist or physiotherapist can provide advice on a personal exercise program. If you haven’t seen a health professional to support you, ask your treating healthcare team or GP for a referral.

Maintain a healthy diet

Eating well is especially important for people with lung disease, as foods contain essential nutrients that help to prevent infections and keep your body healthy. Eating well will also fuel your energy levels. Some medications can have an effect on your appetite. Talk to your healthcare team for advice on how to manage it or ask for a referral to a dietitian.

Rest

Occupational lung diseases can be physically taxing. Ensuring you allow for rest periods when you need them is important as well as getting good quality sleep. This can help manage fatigue and avoid feeling ‘wiped out’ at the end of the day.

Keep your vaccinations updated

People with lung disease may be more susceptible to and have more difficulty recovering from respiratory illnesses. Talk to your healthcare team about which vaccinations are suitable for you, including the seasonal influenza, pneumonia vaccinations, and COVID-19.

Take your medications as prescribed

It is important to take your medications as prescribed. Medication should not be stopped unless advised by your doctor. Bring your prescriptions to your appointments and make sure you take your medications with you if you go to hospital.
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