“My GP said my job was making me unwell but I kept working until I was hospitalised with an asthma attack.”

Debbi Wood, 58, was diagnosed with occupational asthma
27 years ago

“I worked full-time as a carpet shop manager for seven years. It was a big store with lots of massive carpets on rolls. The carpet fitters would often come in to cut the carpets, and the heating system would blow out carpet fibres into the air. It didn’t enter my head to worry about breathing them in. I liked the role and my colleagues."

I didn’t realise I had typical asthma symptoms

“For about nine months, I developed a persistent cough and went through a cycle of needing a week or so off because I was struggling to breathe, recovering, returning to work and becoming unwell again. My GP spotted the pattern and diagnosed occupational asthma. He prescribed a blue reliever inhaler and a brown preventer inhaler and said I should give up my job.

“My priority was to provide a home for my five-year old daughter. Even though the coughing was starting to affect my sleep and I couldn’t go out with friends in the evenings without having to leave early due to the smoke in pubs, I kept working and convinced myself everything would be okay.

“The December after my diagnosis, I wheezed and coughed all through my daughter’s first nativity play and that night my mum called an ambulance. Not being able to breathe was terrifying. After that, my GP refused to allow me to return to work and I was forced to medically retire.

It has been a difficult journey…

“I couldn’t work for seven years, which was horrendous financially. Over the years I’ve had several asthma attacks and hospital admissions. And because of long-term steroid use, I now have other health problems, including osteoarthritis.

“If only I knew then what I know now! Apparently, as well as the tiny carpet fibres, a glue that’s used in the backs of the carpets can damage airways if you inhale it often enough.

“My condition might have been avoided if there had been a separate area for the fitters to cut the carpets. And something as simple as wearing masks could have made a huge difference. But nobody considered health and safety as much in the 80s and 90s and it didn’t occur to me to speak to my employers about my wellbeing. I think I was too focused on keeping my job."

…but I’m enjoying work again now!

“Gradually I became better at managing my asthma and returned to work part-time. I’m now working full-time for a local authority and my employers couldn’t be more supportive. They let me work from home if I’m unwell. After a colleague came in after a gym session wearing lots of deodorant, which triggered an asthma attack, my boss immediately sent out an email banning perfumes and sprays.

“I do cough and wheeze at work but my colleagues understand. After that email, they came over one by one and asked me what they can do to help. They know not to call a first-aider if I’m having an asthma attack, but to dial 999 straight away  – this helps me feel safe when I’m at work.

I’m doing lots of things to manage my asthma

“I’m 58 now but want to keep working full-time for as long as I can. I take my medication like clockwork: my inhalers are next to my bed so I take them first thing in the morning and last thing at night. And I have a portable nebuliser used under hospital direction in my car and at work.

“I know my triggers – mainly perfume, smoke, changes in the weather and chlorine. I can avoid some of them, for instance, I don’t walk past strong-smelling cosmetics shops or wear hand cream because the scents set off my coughing. I’ve got a weather app on my phone as cold and damp can be a trigger. I wrap a scarf around my mouth and nose when it’s chilly and I never go out without an umbrella. If I go swimming, I can tell by the smell in the changing rooms whether there’s too much chlorine in the water. If there is, I don’t go swimming. I have to be flexible.

“The main thing I’ve learned about managing this condition is that I need to pace myself – overdoing it makes me unwell. My friends and family understand that I might need to drop out at the last minute and go home and rest. They’re all very supportive. That’s the key to staying as well as possible with asthma, I think – going with the flow depending on what my body’s telling me at that particular time.”

Last updated May 2017