Getting Disability Benefits for COPD or Asthma

If you have severe symptoms of COPD or asthma that keep you out of work for at least one year, you might qualify for disability.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Respiratory disorders, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, are some of the most common impairments listed on disability applications. Both disorders interfere with your ability to breathe normally. However, asthma symptoms are usually only triggered by an allergen, while COPD has constant symptoms that can worsen over time.

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

Is Asthma a Disability?

Asthma is one of Social Security's listed impairments. Listed impairments (or just "listings") are disorders that the agency considers "automatically" disabling—meaning you can qualify for benefits without having to show that no jobs exist that you can do—if you have evidence of certain criteria in your medical records. Getting disability benefits by having all the criteria present in your records is called "meeting a listing."

You can meet listing 3.03 with a diagnosis of asthma if your medical records contain documentation of either one of the following:

  • You have a forced expiratory volume (FEV1) value (volume of air exhaled in one second) that's equal to or less than a given amount, depending on your age, sex, and height. Table VI-B in the listing states, for example, that a 21-year-old man who is 6'1" meets the listing with an FEV1 of 2.55 or below.
  • You must have had three exacerbations or complications requiring hospitalization in a one-year period. The hospitalizations must have lasted at least 48 hours each and must have occurred at least 30 days apart. If you meet these requirements, Social Security will consider you disabled for at least one year after the discharge date of your last hospitalization. After one year, the agency will re-evaluate your impairment.

If you have a diagnosis of chronic asthmatic bronchitis, a respiratory disorder that causes inflammation of the bronchi—the tubes that connect your windpipe with your lungs—Social Security will evaluate your application under the listing for COPD (discussed below). The same is true for bronchiectasis, a condition where the airways in your lung(s) become permanently widened, which can lead to frequent infections.

Is COPD a Disability?

COPD, like asthma, is a listed impairment. 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 one of the following ways:

  • Your FEV1 is equal to or less than a given amount, depending on your age, sex, and height. Table I-B in the listing states, for example, that a 24-year-old 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 (based on your age, sex, and height).
  • Your lungs can't properly oxygenate your blood according to results from the following tests: DLCO (diffusing capacity of lungs for carbon monoxide), arterial PaCO2 and PaO2 (the pressure of carbon dioxide and oxygen in arterial blood), or SpO2 (the percentage that your blood is saturated with oxygen). These values are also dependent on your age, sex, and height.

If you don't have the right test results for listing 3.02 according to its 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.

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

Your medical records are the most important part of your disability claim. It's important to let Social Security know the contact information and dates of treatment for every medical provider you've seen, including your treating physician's notes and discharge summaries from any hospital visits. The agency will review these records looking at your symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment for asthma or COPD.

Symptoms of Asthma and COPD

Asthma and COPD are characterized by dyspnea (shortness of breath) while doing everyday activities, such as climbing stairs. Asthma attacks can be triggered by airborne irritants, allergies, exercise, cold air, cold viruses, and emotional distress. COPD symptoms include chronic coughing, fatigue, and chest pain.

Your symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe depending on how reduced your lung capacity is. For example, somebody with moderate COPD has less than 80%, but greater or equal to 50%, of predicted lung capacity, while somebody with very severe COPD has less than 30% of predicted lung capacity. The more severe your symptoms are, the more likely Social Security will consider your asthma or COPD to be disabling.

Diagnosing Respiratory Disorders

Asthma, COPD, and other respiratory disorders can be partly diagnosed by testing your pulmonary functioning (spirometry). Your doctor will measure your lung capacity by having you take a deep breath and blow into a machine called a spirometer.

Your doctor will also need to review your medical history and conduct a physical exam to rule out other potential diagnoses. Objective medical imaging, such as X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans of your chest that show lung opacity should be reviewed by your doctor and included with your disability application.

Treatment for Asthma and COPD

Asthma and COPD are often treated with bronchodilators, medications that help widen the pathways to the lungs. Inhalers containing bronchodilators are the main treatment used to relieve acute (sudden, temporary) asthma attacks. Depending on how severe your asthma or COPD is, your doctor might also recommend the following:

  • 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.

Sleep apnea is often comorbid (occurring at the same time) with asthma or COPD, 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 you breathe by pumping a steady stream of air into your lungs to keep the airways unobstructed during sleep.

What Are the General Requirements for Disability?

Before Social Security can determine whether you meet the listings for asthma or COPD (or that you're disabled under a medical-vocational allowance), the agency needs to evaluate your legal eligibility for disability benefits.

There are two types of benefits—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI is available to people with a qualifying work history who've paid FICA (payroll) taxes or SECA (self-employment) taxes for a number of years.

SSI is needs-based and intended for people with limited financial resources, regardless of work history. If you don't qualify for at least one of the available programs, Social Security can't award you benefits, no matter how bad your respiratory conditions are.

You also must show that your asthma, COPD, or other pulmonary impairments prevent you from working full-time for at least 12 months. Social Security defines "full-time work" as earning at or above the level of substantial gainful activity ($1,550 per month in 2024). Even if you can only work one week per month due to your respiratory symptoms, if you're consistently earning $1,550 during that week, you can't qualify for disability.

If you're not sure whether you're eligible for benefits, or you're ready to start your application and would like legal help, consider contacting an experienced disability attorney. Most lawyers will provide a free consultation, and if you hire them to represent you, they won't get paid unless you win your disability claim.

Updated February 1, 2024

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