Ask the Allergist: Asthma On the Job

Q: I’m getting ready for my first job. I have asthma, I’m very allergic to mold, and the job is in an old office building. What precautions should I take and what do you recommend I discuss with my employer about my asthma?

Allen Meadows, MD: I believe everyone with asthma and allergies should be able to live a normal life free of symptoms. And if they’re on the right medicines, then they should be able to do anything they want to do, including working in any environment.

I would advise that you first see an asthma specialist to make sure your asthma is well controlled and your lung function is normal – before you start the job.

When I talk to patients about starting a new job and they’re worried about mold allergy, I recommend they ask during the interview process to actually see where they will work. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the employer to look at the work site, and if there’s a problem to ask if there’s an opportunity work in a place that is less moldy. For example, telecommuting may be a possibility.

If the workplace is in an old historic building, the employer may not be able to do very much about mold. It’s difficult to completely eliminate all mold and it can be expensive to hire a professional contractor, especially for a small business. Mold could be inside air supply ducts, in wall cavities, across ceiling tiles or underneath damp carpets.

Certainly mold removal is something to discuss with your employer. But if little can be done, then you may want to think about working somewhere else.

Q: I also react strongly to perfumes or indoor air fresheners, which can set off my asthma. What do you recommend?

Reactions to perfumes or indoor air fresheners are usually not a problem when asthma is well controlled. But if they do cause a reaction, then I think the best policy is to go straight to the co-worker and tell them, ‘I have asthma, it’s well controlled and I’m taking medicine for it, but sometimes your perfume or your indoor air freshener sets off my symptoms. Would it be all right with you if you didn’t use that – or used less of it?’ Most people will understand and work with you.

This is a better approach than going straight to the boss, since that may create a little ill will. You can reserve going to the boss a little bit later should the co-worker ignore or refuse your request and your symptoms worsen. 

Allen Meadows, MD, FACAAI, is a board-certified allergist and immunologist with Alabama Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Montgomery, Alabama. He serves as chair of the Advocacy Council and speaker of the House of Delegates with the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Have a medical question? Email or write to Ask the Allergist, Allergy & Asthma Network, 8229 Boone Blvd., Suite 260, Vienna, VA 22182.


Find an Allergist