Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for several respiratory (breathing-related) disorders, such as chronic asthmatic bronchitis and emphysema. These diseases are characterized by obstructed airflow through the airways in and out of the lungs. Both conditions are progressive—meaning they get worse over time—and cause excessive inflammation that eventually damages lung structures.
COPD is mainly caused by cigarette smoking, but a small percentage of people diagnosed with COPD have a genetic condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, also known as familial emphysema. Airborne irritants can contribute to COPD, and adults with asthma are particularly susceptible to developing the disorder.
If symptoms from your COPD prevent you from working full-time for at least 12 months, you may qualify for disability benefits. Potentially disabling symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest pain. COPD can also add stress to the heart muscle, causing pulmonary heart disease, or "cor pulmonale."
Whether you qualify for disability depends on how severe your COPD is. In the early stages of COPD, symptoms may be mild or even nonexistent (asymptomatic). Later stages of COPD are more likely to cause moderate to severe symptoms that restrict your daily activities and keep you from working.
To qualify for disability, you'll need to be legally eligible to receive at least one of the two types of benefits provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA)—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Eligibility for SSDI is based on your work history, while SSI is a needs-based program available to people with limited financial resources.
As long as you meet the financial requirements for SSDI or SSI, Social Security will review your medical records to see whether you're disabled according to the agency's definition of disability. You're considered disabled when you have a severe impairment that prevents you from working for at least one year and either:
The Blue Book is a publication from Social Security that contains ("lists") certain impairments that the agency considers particularly severe, including respiratory disorders like COPD and chronic asthmatic bronchitis. If you meet the requirements of a listing, you automatically qualify for benefits based on your medical record.
Only the most severe stages of COPD are likely to qualify for disability based on meeting a listing. But you can get disability with moderate COPD if you can show that limitations from your symptoms rule out any sort of work.
Several listings in Section 3.00 of the Blue Book are relevant for people with COPD and related disorders. Social Security can evaluate your application under one or more of the following listings.
Listing 3.02 covers chronic respiratory disorders generally. Most people with COPD meet this listing by having spirometry (lung function testing) results that show very limited airflow. Social Security will want to see documentation that you've had tests that measure the following:
You'll also need to show that your test results are less than or equal to a specific number value that represents severely reduced lung function. These numbers can differ based on your age, sex, or height. You can find them by looking at one of the five tables included in listing 3.02 (I, II, III, IV [A-C], or V) that corresponds to the test you took.
Here are some sample lung function values that meet the standard for disability:
If you haven't had recent spirometry testing, Social Security might send you to a consultative examination (at the agency's expense) to obtain updated test results.
Listing 3.14 covers respiratory failure—the inability of the lungs to perform their basic function of gas exchange—resulting from COPD and other chronic pulmonary disorders (except cystic fibrosis). You can meet this listing if you have medical documentation all of the following:
Very advanced stages of COPD may require a lung transplant. Under listing 3.11, Social Security will automatically consider you disabled for three years from the date of your transplant. After three years, the agency will revisit your case to determine whether you're still disabled.
If your spirometry results are higher than the above listing requirements—meaning your COPD may be more moderate than severe—you might still qualify for disability benefits. You'll need to show that your COPD has reduced your breathing capacity to such an extent that no jobs exist that you can do.
To find out whether you can do any jobs, Social Security will look at your treatment history, doctors' opinions, and functional limitations to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you can do in a work setting. These restrictions typically fall into two categories—exertional (restrictions on how much weight you can lift and how long you can be on your feet) and non-exertional (restrictions on exposure to certain environments or tools).
For example, if you can't lift more than 20 pounds or walk more than two hours without getting out of breath, your RFC will limit you to light exertion. Or, if being around dust or fumes aggravates your symptoms, your RFC will contain non-exertional restrictions against exposure to those irritants. The worse your symptoms are, the more restrictions you'll have in your RFC (and the lower your exertional level will be).
Social Security compares your RFC with your work history to see if you could do any of the jobs you've done before. If you can't, then the agency will determine whether any other work exists that you could do despite the restrictions in your RFC. Social Security considers factors such as your age, education, and employment history when deciding to rule out other jobs.
For example, if you have an FEV1 value that is almost—but not quite—low enough to meet a disability listing, Social Security will likely restrict you to sedentary (sit-down) exertion in your RFC. So if your past jobs involved being on your feet all day, the agency won't expect you to do them again. And if you're 50 or older and haven't already learned skills that you can use at a sit-down job, Social Security won't expect you to make the transition to other work.
The vast majority of disability applicants with COPD have other serious medical problems as well. Coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and depression are often diagnosed along with COPD. When you have multiple medical conditions that affect your ability to work, you have a better chance of getting benefits. (For more information, see our articles on how Social Security considers combined impairments and how moderate mental illnesses affect your disability claim.)
A convenient way to start your disability application is to file online with the SSA. You don't have to finish the application in one sitting—just make sure that you keep track of the "re-entry number" given to you when you start the application (so you can return to your saved application and finish it at your convenience).
You can also apply for disability benefits by phone by calling 800-772-1213, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.
Finally, you can apply for disability benefits in person at your local Social Security field office. You can locate your field office here.
According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. If you'd like help with your application, consider working with an experienced disability attorney. Your lawyer can gather medical records on your behalf, handle communications with Social Security, and represent you (if necessary) at a disability hearing.
Updated January 10, 2024