Tuberculosis is an infection caused by exposure to the bacterium mycobacterium tuberculosis. Approximately 25% of the world's population is believed to have contracted the bacteria at some point, but it doesn't develop into symptomatic tuberculosis or become contagious (called latent tuberculosis). For around 5–10% of those who contract the bacteria, the infection will eventually progress into active tuberculosis.
With treatment, most people recover from tuberculosis, but if left untreated, the disease can cause lasting and permanent damage to the body. If symptoms or complications from tuberculosis keep you from working for at least twelve months, you may be eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Pulmonary tuberculosis, which affects the lungs, is the most common form of active tuberculosis. But the infection may spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body, like the bones, kidneys, and brain. Common symptoms of tuberculosis include:
Active tuberculosis is usually treated for a longer duration than other bacterial infections. Treatment requires a combination of antibiotics, and patients typically recover within four to nine months. However, severe cases of tuberculosis may cause complications (such as lung damage or spinal infection) that take more time to resolve.
Because tuberculosis can often be cured within a number of months, most people with the infection won't qualify for disability benefits. (Social Security doesn't award short-term disability benefits, so the agency needs to see that your medical impairment is going to last for at least one year.) But if your infection is stubborn, you develop complications, or you're experiencing significant side effects from the antibiotics, you might need more than twelve months to recover. In that case, you might qualify for SSDI or SSI.
Your disability application will need to contain medical evidence that your tuberculosis is serious enough to qualify for disability benefits. You can do this in two ways:
You'll also need to make sure that you meet the non-medical requirements for either SSDI or SSI. For example, if you haven't worked enough to establish insured status under SSDI, or you don't meet the low income and asset requirements for SSI, you won't be eligible for benefits even if you're medically disabled.
Social Security evaluates mycobacterial infections like tuberculosis under listing 3.02 for chronic respiratory disorders. This listing heading covers disorders such as tuberculosis that affect how air moves in (restriction) and out (obstruction) of the lungs. The requirements for listing 3.02 are very technical, but all required test results must demonstrate that your breathing is severely obstructed or restricted.
The agency will review your medical records looking for the results of breathing tests that measure your forced expiratory volume—how much air you can breathe out of your lungs—as well as other lung function values. If your test results are poor enough to meet this listing, your tuberculosis claim will be approved. (For more information on the respiratory disorder listing lung function test requirements, see our article on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.)
If your tuberculosis has damaged other areas of the body, such as the skin, kidneys, bones, or urinary system, Social Security can evaluate you under the disability listings for those organs and body systems. For more information, see our full list of medical conditions in the Blue Book.
Even if you don't meet the specific requirements of a listing, you can still qualify for disability benefits if your tuberculosis limitations keep you from doing any job. Social Security assesses your ability to work by considering all your impairments and functional limitations, and then it creates your "residual functional capacity" (RFC).
Your RFC outlines the physical and mental tasks you can or can't perform in a job setting. For example, if your tuberculosis causes you to experience shortness of breath after even mild exertion, your RFC might include restrictions on jobs that require you to lift more than 20 pounds or be on your feet for most of the day. Or if you get fatigued frequently, your RFC may state that you need to be able to take unscheduled breaks during your workday.
The agency then uses your RFC to determine if you're able to return to your past relevant work. If not, Social Security will then need to see whether any other jobs exist that somebody with your RFC would be able to do. Broadly speaking, disability applicants under the age of 50 will need to show that they can't do even basic, sit-down jobs in order to get disability benefits. (Applicants who are age 50 or older may have an easier time getting benefits under the medical-vocational grid rules.)
Applying for Social Security benefits is a straightforward process. You can file your application in one of four ways:
If you want to increase your chances of winning your disability case, it's a good idea to hire a qualified attorney who can help guide you through the process. Your lawyer can help you submit your medical evidence, handle communication with Social Security, and represent you at a disability hearing.
Updated November 20, 2023