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Wake Forest University School of Medicine

My name is Juan. This story is about what happened to me last summer when I got green tobacco sickness.

Last summer was my first time working in tobacco. I was eager to start. We went to the fields very early in the morning.

Portrait of Juan

The tobacco leaves were wet. My T-shirt and pants got soaked from the water on the leaves. I carried the leaves under my arms. My T-shirt also got yellow and sticky from the tobacco juice.

Juan at work

Later, the sun started to dry off the leaves. It got very hot in the field. I had to bend over again and again to pick the lower leaves. The smell of the tobacco was very strong, and there was no breeze to stir the air.

Juan at work

After lunch, I started to feel dizzy. Then I got a headache. I was nauseous, and I threw up.

None of the other workers were sick. Some of them said they had felt the same way when they first started working in tobacco.

Juan begins to feel sick while the other workers are okay

I lay down in the truck, but I still felt sick. Another worker had to drive me home early that day.

Jaun lays down in a truck

One worker said I should drink some milk, but I still felt sick. Another worker told me to take some pills for motion sickness, but those did not help either.

Juan on a porch resting

I could not eat the rest of the day. I also had trouble sleeping that night. I felt very restless. The longer I stayed awake, the more I worried about missing work the next day.

Juan laying in bed

The next day, I was too weak to work. I spent the whole day sitting in a chair. I was really worried, because I might not have enough money to send home to my family. The other workers told me about workers who had been so sick working in tobacco that they had to go home. I was also afraid I might be fired.

Juan in chair on porch, slumping

I went back to work, but I was still weak. I had a hard time keeping up with the other workers. Every day I felt sick in the evening, although it was not as bad as the first day.

Juan leaning again wheel

I talked with the clinic outreach worker a few days later at the camp. He told me that I had green tobacco sickness. He explained to me, "Workers can get green tobacco sickness by working in the fields when the leaves are wet.

The nicotine in the tobacco mixes with the water on the leaves and the sweat in your clothes. Then the nicotine goes through your skin into your blood. Your wet clothes keep the nicotine on your skin all day while you are working."

Juan being examined by doctor

Green tobacco sickness can start within a few hours of going into the fields. Some people may not feel sick until later in the day, even after work is finished. People with green tobacco sickness feel dizzy and sick to their stomachs, start to vomit, and get a headache.

Juan throwing up

Green tobacco sickness is not usually dangerous. However, some workers may have to go to the hospital because they feel too sick to eat or drink enough.

Juan talking with doctor A water cooler

Some of the other workers said that smoking cigarettes prevents green tobacco sickness; but the outreach worker said that it is a bad idea to smoke cigarettes. Even smokers get green tobacco sickness.

Juan talking with doctor

The outreach worker said the best way to prevent green tobacco sickness is to wait to go into the field until the leaves are dry. If you have to work in wet tobacco, you can protect yourself by wearing a rainsuit until the leaves dry off.

Juan begins to put on protective clothing    Juan finishes dressing in protective clothing

It is also a good idea to bring a change of clothes to work. If your work clothes get wet with water from the tobacco leaves, you can change into dry clothes.

Juan pulls out extra pair of clothes from bag

The outreach worker told me to wear a long sleeve shirt. It will help keep the tobacco juice off my skin.

Juan buttons long sleeve shirt

If you get wet while you are in the field, you should:

  • change your clothes once they get wet
  • wash off with warm, soapy water after being in the field
It is also important to try to wear clean clothes everyday. Clothes that you wore yesterday may still have nicotine from the tobacco on them.

Laundry both folded and dirty

I know how to avoid green tobacco sickness. I can work as much as the others. My boss is very happy that I am working. I am very happy to be working again. I can earn money to send home to my family.

Juan getting paid Close up photo of Juan feeling better


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Reviewed for NASD: 10/2002