Emphysema is a chronic disease of the lungs caused by long-term exposure to smoke or air pollution. The lungs of an emphysema sufferer can’t hold their physical shape or function properly because the supporting tissue has been destroyed. Symptoms include shortness of breath with even mild activity, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, and frequent respiratory infections. Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
If you suffer from severe emphysema, you may be approved automatically for disability benefits if you either meet the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) listing requirements for COPD (chronic pulmonary insufficiency), or if your doctor's restrictions on what you can do limit you so much that there are no jobs left for you to do.
To determine whether you meet the COPD listing, the SSA will give you a test designed to evaluate your lung function called a spirometry test. Even if your doctor has given you this test before, the SSA requires that you undergo a new exam administered by one of its doctors, at what's called a consultative exam. The spirometry test monitors how much air is exchanged when you breathe and the rate at which you breathe. The spirometry test required for emphysema suffers will specifically measure how much air you can force out in the first second of an exhalation (called FEV1).
For automatic approval for your emphysema, you'll also have to provide the SSA with a chest x-ray or other diagnostic imaging test (like a CT scan) that shows the disease. For more information on the specific listing requirements, see our article on chronic pulmonary insufficiency. This article also discusses how you can get disability benefits for emphysema based on your doctor's restrictions on what you can do.
Even if you meet the listing requirements for disability approval, the SSA must make several determinations to evaluate your basic eligibility for disability: you cannot earn more than $1,220 a month from working (in 2019) and your emphysema must prevent you from working for at least 12 months.
There are two types of benefits: SSI and SSDI. SSI is intended for people with a limited work history and limited financial resources. For more information on the financial requirements of SSI, see our section on SSI eligibility.
SSDI is available to people with a qualifying work history, where you and your employer paid taxes to the SSA for a number of years. For more information, see our section on SSDI eligibility.