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Assessment of Bronchial Responsiveness Following Exposure to Inhaled Occupational and Environmental Agents

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Inhalation of a range of agents can result in airway inflammation and/or irritation. This may result in occupational asthma or reactive airways dysfunction syndrome. Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome follows a single large exposure to a chemical agent but is now frequently embraced under the wider term of irritant-induced asthma, a term that also includes asthma due to persistent, lower dose irritant exposures.

Bronchial hyperresponsiveness is a hallmark of both occupational asthma and reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, although some patients with occupational asthma may occasionally have typical clinical features without increased bronchial hyperresponsiveness. Following removal of the causal agent in occupational asthma, bronchial hyperresponsiveness generally returns towards normal over a 2-year period, although some individuals demonstrate increased bronchial hyperresponsiveness for longer. Measurement of specific bronchial hyperresponsiveness to the primary causal agent in occupational asthma is used diagnostically but not for assessing prognosis.

Bronchial hyperresponsiveness to inhaled methacholine can be measured across individual workshifts to assess work-related change. It may also be measured at the end of a work period when exposure has occurred, and compared with values following a period away from work. There have been no direct, systematic comparisons of changes in methacholine responsiveness in the diagnosis of occupational asthma compared with the more frequently used serial peak flow measurements. Patients with reactive airways dysfunction syndrome classically exhibit non-specific bronchial hyperresponsiveness, which can be readily measured by evaluating responses to inhaled methacholine. Bronchial hyperresponsiveness in reactive airways dysfunction syndrome can persist for many years after initial exposure and serial changes can be used to assess recovery and subsequent disability over time.

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No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this review. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this review.

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Correspondence to Professor Jon G. Ayres.

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Currie, G.P., Ayres, J.G. Assessment of Bronchial Responsiveness Following Exposure to Inhaled Occupational and Environmental Agents. Toxicol Rev 23, 75–81 (2004). https://doi.org/10.2165/00139709-200423020-00002

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  • Asthma
  • Peak Expiratory Flow
  • Methacholine
  • Occupational Asthma
  • Bronchial Hyperresponsiveness