Byssinosis is a form of reactive airways disease characterized by bronchoconstriction in cotton, flax, and hemp workers. The etiologic agent is unknown. Symptoms are chest tightness and dyspnea that worsen on the first day of the work week and subside as the week progresses. Diagnosis is based on history and pulmonary function test findings. Treatment includes avoidance of exposure and use of asthma drugs.
Byssinosis occurs almost entirely in workers who contact unprocessed, raw cotton, especially those who are exposed to open bales or who work in cotton spinning or in the card room. Byssinosis can occur after acute exposure but usually occurs in workers with a history of chronic exposure. Evidence suggests that some agent in the cotton bract leads to bronchoconstriction. Although bacterial endotoxin is a likely cause, the absence of similar symptoms in other settings in which workers are exposed to endotoxin leaves some uncertainty. Prolonged exposure to cotton dust was once thought to cause emphysema, a theory now disproved. Chronic bronchitis symptoms are common among people exposed to cotton dust.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms are chest tightness and dyspnea that lessen with repeated exposure. Symptoms develop on the first day of work after a weekend or vacation and diminish or disappear by the end of the week. With repeated exposure over a period of years, chest tightness tends to return and persist through midweek and occasionally to the end of the week or as long as the person continues to work. This typical temporal pattern distinguishes byssinosis from asthma.
Signs of acute exposure are tachypnea and wheezing. Patients with more chronic exposure may have crackles.
Diagnosis is based on history and pulmonary function tests that show typical airflow obstruction and a reduction in ventilatory capacity, especially if measured at the start and end of a first work shift. Hyperresponsiveness to methacholine is also often observed. Surveillance measures, including symptom reporting and spirometry in textile workers, can aid in early detection.
Treatment includes avoidance or reduction of exposure and use of asthma drugs.
Last full review/revision June 2008 by Lee S. Newman, MD, MA
Content last modified November 2013