Getting Disability Benefits for COPD, Asthma, or Other Respiratory Disorders

It can be tough to meet Social Security's disability listings for respiratory problems, but with your doctor's help, you can get benefits.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law | Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney
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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term encompassing several respiratory disorders including emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma. Difficulty breathing due to COPD can result in coughing, wheezing, and dyspnea (shortness of breath).

Many people with mild COPD are able to manage their symptoms with medications and exercise. But if you have advanced COPD, your symptoms might limit your ability to walk further than short distances or lift anything heavier than small objects. If symptoms from your COPD, asthma, or other pulmonary (lung) conditions keep you from working full-time, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Is COPD a Disability?

COPD can be disabling if the limitations from your symptoms prevent you from working at any job. If you apply for Social Security disability benefits for a respiratory condition like COPD or asthma, you have about a 50% chance of getting approved for benefits. Very advanced COPD can be automatically disabling if you can show Social Security that you have significantly reduced lung capacity.

Symptoms of COPD

While people with varying degrees of fitness will tolerate different levels of exertion, COPD is characterized by shortness of breath while doing everyday activities such as climbing stairs. Chronic coughing and fatigue are other common symptoms.

Stages of COPD

COPD comes in four stages—mild, moderate, severe, and very severe. Each stage is defined by the amount of reduction in your lung function. Your doctor will measure your lung capacity by having you take a deep breath and blowing into a machine called a spirometer. Your doctor will compare your results to the expected normal amount to determine what stage of COPD you have.

  • Mild COPD is 80% or more of the predicted lung capacity.
  • Moderate COPD is less than 80%, but greater or equal to 50%, of predicted capacity.
  • Severe COPD is less than 50%, but greater or equal to 30%, of predicted capacity.
  • Very severe COPD less than 30% of predicted lung capacity.

Asthma and other respiratory disorders (such as cystic fibrosis) can be partly diagnosed by a spirometry test, but your doctor will also need to review your medical history and physical exam in order to rule out other potential diagnoses.

Treatment for COPD

Medications known as bronchodilators that help widen the pathways (bronchi) to the lungs are frequently diagnosed for COPD. Depending on how severe your COPD is, your doctor might also recommend:

  • pulmonary rehabilitation (such as exercise training and nutritional advice)
  • supplemental oxygen
  • endobronchial valve treatment (placing small valves to widen the bronchi), and
  • surgery or lung transplantation.

Many people with COPD also suffer from sleep apnea, which can cause daytime drowsiness. The most common therapy for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway (CPAP) machine, a pump attached to a mask that you wear while sleeping. The CPAP helps your breathing by pumping a steady stream of air into your lungs to keep the airways unobstructed during sleep.

How to Get Social Security Disability Benefits for COPD

If your COPD is severe enough to keep you from working for at least twelve months, you might qualify for disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) can award you benefits for COPD in one of two ways:

  • your reduced lung capacity meets the requirements for the SSA's listing for chronic respiratory disorders, or
  • you're unable to work any job because of your COPD symptoms.

Meeting Listing 3.02 for Chronic Respiratory Disorders

The SSA considers some health conditions to be especially severe. If your medical record contains specific test results that the agency has already determined is enough to show that you're disabled, you can qualify for benefits without having to show that you can't do any job. In Social Security lingo, this is called meeting a listing.

COPD is evaluated under Listing 3.02 for chronic respiratory disorders. The listing consists of several tables that Social Security will use to determine if your spirometry test results are enough to qualify you for benefits based on greatly reduced lung capacity. You can meet the criteria of Listing 3.02 in the following ways:

  • Your FEV1 (volume of air exhaled in one second) is equal or less than a given amount depending on your height. Table I-B in the listing states, for example, that an adult woman who is 5'5" meets the listing with an FEV1 of 1.35 or below.
  • You have chronic restrictive ventilatory disease and your FVC (forced vital capacity), the amount of air you can exhale after taking your deepest breath, is less than or equal to the amounts in Table II.
  • Your lungs can't properly oxygenate your blood according to results from the following tests: DLCO (diffusing capacity of lungs for carbon monoxide), the PO2 (pressure of oxygen in arterial blood), or the PCO2 (pressure of carbon dioxide in arterial blood).

If you don't have the right test results for listing 3.02 according to the above tables, you can still meet the listing if you've had at least three symptom flare-ups where you needed at least 48 hours of hospitalization in the past year, spread over the course of several months.

The lung capacity tables in listing 3.02 are highly technical, and difficult to interpret by laypeople. You may wish to get your doctor's opinion, preferably from your pulmonary specialist, on whether you meet the requirements of the listing.

Showing You Can't Work Due to Your COPD

Only the most serious respiratory conditions are likely to meet listing 3.02. But Social Security can still award you disability benefits if you can show that your COPD symptoms keep you from doing any jobs you've done in the past, or any other jobs in the national economy (through what's called a medical-vocational allowance.)

For the SSA to pay you benefits under a medical-vocational allowance, the agency will review your medical records and functional limitations to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions describing the most you can do, physically and mentally, in a work environment. If you get out of breath walking farther than 50 feet, for example, your RFC might reflect this by limiting you to sedentary (sit-down) work. Your RFC will likely also contain restrictions against working around dust, fumes, odors, or temperature extremes.

Social Security will compare your current RFC with the demands of your past jobs to see if you could still do them today. If you can't, then—depending on your age, education, and skills —the SSA will decide whether any other jobs exist that you can do despite the limitations in your RFC.

What Medical Evidence Do You Need to Get Disability for COPD?

The SSA needs to see objective evidence of your COPD or other respiratory disorders. Your medical record should include most, if not all, of the following:

  • pulmonary function testing (spirometry) showing reduced lung capacity
  • prescriptions for bronchodilators, supplemental oxygen, or a CPAP machine
  • progress notes showing regular treatment from a doctor, preferably a pulmonologist, and
  • X-ray or imaging of the chest that shows any lung opacity.

Additionally, a note from your treating doctor stating any limitations you have as a result of your COPD can be helpful. You can provide your doctor with an RFC form that they can complete with their opinion on how long you can walk, stand, lift, and carry.

Updated December 5, 2022

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