Animal users who have asthma or allergic conditions may become sensitive to animal allergens with repeated exposure. Up to 20% of allergic animal users may develop occupational asthma, which can limit the ability to work and may lead to permanent disability. An allergy is the over-reaction response of your immune system to substances in the environment. These substances are called allergens and can cause sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, itchy skin, sinus or nasal congestion or more serious reactions. When we touch or work around animals, we expose our bodies to these allergens. The allergens, which we contact from animals, are called antigens and are transferred to us merely by inhaling, eating, rubbing our eyes, or touching our skin. Common animal antigens are as follows:
- Cats-saliva, hair, skin dander, albumin (a blood protein).
- Dogs-saliva, hair, skin dander, albumin.
- Guinea pigs-urine, skin dander, hair, saliva.
- Rabbits-fur protein, saliva, urine.
- Rats-urine, saliva, bedding, albumin.
- Mice-urine, albumin.
- Others: gerbils, cattle, horses, sheep, deer, birds, reptiles, and fish can also cause allergic reactions.
Symptoms of animal allergy can occur right after exposure or a person can become allergic after weeks, months, or years of exposure. The latest statistics from the National Institutes of Health report that there are 43 million Americans with allergies. A great percentage of people with existing allergies are likely to develop allergies to animals over time. Among animal care workers, 10-40% will develop allergies to animals and up to 10% may develop occupation-related asthma. Types of Allergic Reactions:
- Hives: Called urticaria, these are circumscribed, pink, often itchy raised areas on the skin.
- Conjunctivitis: The conjunctiva of the eyes are red, itchy, and the eyes may water.
- Nasal Congestion: Called rhinitis, this is experienced by sneezing, an itchy nose, clear nasal discharge.
- Asthma: Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness are symptoms of asthma.
- Eczema: This is a dermatitis, seen as flaky or scaly, itchy pink patches on the skin.
- Anaphylaxis: This is an extreme and sometimes life-threatening reaction which can include hives, generalized itching, throat tightness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or abdominal cramping.
Vanderbilt faculty and staff who have acute allergic symptoms from exposure to animals at work should report these symptoms to the Vanderbilt Occupational Health Clinic. In the case of severe symptoms with difficulty breathing, report to the Emergency Room. Wearing masks, gloves, head covers, shoe covers, gowns, safety glasses, working in biological hoods, and showering after the workday all help decrease exposure and allergic reactions. Physician-guided pre-exposure drug therapy (i.e. antihistamines) may also decrease your allergy symptoms. Employees who have been identified through the animal allergy screening program to have allergy symptoms when working with animals at Vanderbilt will be requested to come to the Occupational Health Clinic for further evaluation. It may be recommended that the employee wear an N-95 respirator when working with the animals. The N-95 respirator recommended for animal workers has a special "exhalation" valve to help make it more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. The respirator filters substances (allergens) that could be inhaled, helping to minimize allergy symptoms and progression to asthma. Use of an N-95 respirator requires completion of a one-time medical questionnaire as well as annual fit-testing to ensure the correct fit for proper functioning. Other recommendations will be made on an individual case-by-case basis.
Keywords: allergy, allergies, asthma, animal, animals, survey, OSHA, AAALAC