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Cover of Diagnosis and Management of Work-Related Asthma

Diagnosis and Management of Work-Related Asthma

Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 129

Principal Investigators: , MBBS, MD, FRCP (Edin), FFOM, FRCP (C) and , MD, MSc, CCFP (EM), FCCP. , MSc, , MLIS, , BSc, , BSc, , BScN, MSc, and , MD, MSc, FRCPC, EPC Director.

Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); .
Report No.: 06-E003-2

Structured Abstract


Approximately 5 to 15 percent of adult onset asthma is thought to be occupational asthma (OA).


To systematically review literature regarding the diagnosis and management of OA, and specifically, to compare specific inhalation challenge testing (SIC) with alternative tests, and to review management, including reduction or cessation of exposure.

Search Strategy:

Electronic databases and trials registries were searched. Additional references were identified by bibliographic searches of included studies, hand searches of conference proceedings, and contact with authors.

Selection Criteria:

Population: De-novo OA or a previous diagnosis of asthma that was exacerbated at work. Study design: Controlled clinical trials, prospective or retrospective cohort, cross-sectional, case-series. Diagnosis: Intervention: At least two diagnostic tests, including one or more from a pre-determined hierarchy of ‘reference standard’ tests. Outcomes: 2 × 2 or 2 × 1 table, sensitivity, specificity, likelihood ratios, time to diagnosis, cost of diagnosis, and adverse effects. Management: Intervention: Pharmacological treatment, removal, reduced, or continued exposure. Outcomes: Pulmonary function, medication use, quality of life, symptoms, economic consequences, and adverse events.

Data Extraction:

Two researchers independently extracted data.

Data Analysis:

Diagnosis: Pooled sensitivities and specificities for sensitizer-induced OA with 95% confidence intervals (CI) were derived using a random effects model. Management: Weighted pooling of means and standard deviations to combine results within studies. Quantitative analysis was not conducted due to heterogeneity.

Main Results:

One-hundred and twenty-four unique diagnostic studies and 65 unique management studies were included. Much of the evidence relates to sensitizer induced OA. Diagnosis: Among the high molecular weight (HMW) asthmagens compared to SIC, non-specific bronchial provocation (NSBP) test, skin prick test (SPT), and serum specific IgE had sensitivities above 73 percent. The specificity was highest between serum specific IgE versus SIC (79.0 percent [95% CI: 50.5 to 93.3 percent]). The highest sensitivity among low molecular weight (LMW) asthmagens occurred between SPT and SIC (72.9 percent [95% CI: 59.7 to 83.0 percent]), but this applied only to LMW sensitizers for which SPT could be performed. When compared to SIC, serum specific IgE and SPT had similar specificities (88.9 percent [95% CI: 84.7 to 92.1 percent] and 86.2 percent [95% CI: 77.4 to 91.9 percent], respectively). For HMW asthmagens, a combined positive test result to NSBP test and SPT versus SIC yielded modest sensitivity (60.6 percent [95% CI: 21.0 to 89.9 percent]) yet high specificity (82.5 percent [95% CI: 54.0 to 95.0 percent]). Management: Removed workers showed improved lung function and decreased non-specific broncial responsiveness at follow-up; exposed workers were either no better or worse. Lack of data prevented conclusions about the effectiveness of reducing exposure. Removed workers suffered from reduced income and/or unemployment. Fully or partially exposed workers also appeared to have reduced earnings over time.


Diagnosis: Single NSBP test, specific SPT, or serum specific IgE testing alone is insufficient to diagnose OA. While positive results would increase the likelihood of OA, a negative result would not exclude OA. The literature supports the concept of combined testing; however, additional research is required to determine which combination of tests would result in sufficient sensitivity and specificity that it could replace SIC. Management: OA appears to be slow to resolve, and may worsen irrespective of subsequent exposure status. Patients who are removed from the workplace rarely experience complete resolution, may require medications, and experience continued airflow limitation. Standard treatments for asthma appear to be effective in OA; however, there is limited research.


Prepared for: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.1 Contract No. 290-02-0023. Prepared by: University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Suggested citation:

Beach J, Rowe BH, Blitz S, Crumley E, Hooton N, Russell K, Spooner C, Klassen T. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 129. (Prepared by the University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center, under Contract No. 290-02-0023.) AHRQ Publication No. 06-E003-2. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. November 2005.

This report is based on research conducted by the University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) under contract to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Rockville, MD (Contract No. 290-02-0023). The findings and conclusions in this document are those of the author(s), who are responsible for its content, and do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ. No statement in this report should be construed as an official position of AHRQ or of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The information in this report is intended to help clinicians, employers, policymakers, and others make informed decisions about the provision of health care services. This report is intended as a reference and not as a substitute for clinical judgment.

This report may be used, in whole or in part, as the basis for the development of clinical practice guidelines and other quality enhancement tools, or as a basis for reimbursement and coverage policies. AHRQ or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services endorsement of such derivative products may not be stated or implied.


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Bookshelf ID: NBK37917


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