Breathing problems caused by the lung conditions bronchiectasis and pneumoconiosis can have very dramatic effects on your ability to function day to day.
Bronchiectasis is a lung condition that causes the airways that bring air to and from the lungs to widen; this weakens the airways' ability to clear out mucus. This can eventually prevent the airways from properly moving air in and out of the lungs.
Bronchiectasis can be congenital, meaning it was present at birth, or acquired. Acquired bronchiectasis can be caused by diseases such as cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, and HIV. Additionally, other conditions, including blockages in the airways due to tumors, severe heartburn, and drug abuse can also cause acquired bronchiectasis.
Pneumoconiosis is a lung condition caused by inhaling toxic particles such as coal dust, silica, or asbestos. These particles cause the tissues within the lungs to become inflamed and then scar. The scarring causes the lungs to lose their elasticity, which can eventually cause difficulty with expanding the lungs to take in air.
Pneumoconiosis includes Black Lung Disease, asbestosis, and silicosis. Generally, these conditions occur in people in certain professions, such as coal mining or construction.
For both conditions, bronchiectasis and pneumoconiosis, early symptoms include a chronic cough and shortness of breath. As these symptoms progress, fatigue and poor coloring can become symptoms.
Long-term effects of bronchiectasis and pneumoconiosis can include heart failure, respiratory failure, and chronic lung infections. Clubbing of fingers (which is a thickening of the skin on your finger tips), brain abscesses, and repeated severe lung infections caused by bacteria in the mucus trapped in the airways can also be long term effects of bronchiectasis. Cancer can also be a long-term effect of pneumoconiosis.
If the poor functioning of your lungs has made it impossible for you to continue to work, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). There are two main ways in which you can qualify for benefits.
The first way in which you can qualify for disability benefits is if you meet Social Security's specific "listing" for bronchiectasis or pneumoconiosis. (Social Security publishes a list of specific impairments and the specific disabilities associated with the impairment; if you meet the requirements of the listing, you will automatically be qualified for disability benefits.)
The second way in which you can qualify for disability benefits is if you are unable to work due to your disability. Social Security considers many factors in making this determination, including your age, education level, work history, and level of functioning. Physical, mental, and sensory abilities are all considered in determining your level of functioning.
Social Security's listings for bronchiectasis (listing 3.07) requires that you provide medical imaging that shows the presence of the lung condition and that you have had at least three hospitalizations due to exacerbations or complications in the last year, each lasting at least 48 hours and occurring at least 30 days apart.
Social Security no longer has a separate disability listing for pneumoconiosis; instead, it's evaluated under the listing for chronic respiratory disorders, listing 3.02. This listing requires that you have poor results of a lung functioning test, proving you have "pulmonary insufficiency." See our article on Disability Benefits for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) to read about which tests are required under the new listing to qualify for disability benefits.
If you don't meet the requirements of one the listings discussed above, Social Security will look at all of your impairments together and determine how the combination of impairments affects your ability to work.
For those with bronchiectasis or pneumoconiosis, the inability to breath properly will affect many physical aspects of their abilities. For example, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing can prevent you from doing physically exertional activities, such as moving items or walking up and down stairs. Fatigue from shortness of breath can affect the ability to do even desk work if it becomes severe enough. If, because of your shortness of breath and fatigue, Social Security gives you a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) for sedentary work (rather than light work or medium work), it will help your chance of getting benefits.
It is important to keep in mind that the ability to do your previous job is not the deciding factor in receiving disability benefits; Social Security will look at your ability to do any job. In determining whether there is less strenuous work you can do, Social Security uses a predetermined grid of rules based on your age, education level, and work history. If an individual has a work history in physical labor and has minimal formal education, they may be more likely to qualify for disability benefits under the grids if they can no longer due physical labor. Even with more education, if you are older than 55 and you have an RFC for sedentary work, you will be found disabled if you don't have job skills that you could transfer to another type of job.
If you can't do even sedentary work, Social Security will find you disabled. You may be found unable to do sedentary work if the range of sedentary jobs you can do is significantly limited by your nonexertional limitations. For instance, a significant factor that is affected by these lung conditions is the conditions under which individuals can work. Irritants in the air that may be tolerated by other individuals may cause increased breathing difficulties for individuals with lung conditions. Those with pneumoconiosis cannot be further exposed to environmental hazards such as coal dust, which would prevent those individuals from returning to their previous jobs or any other jobs where dust is a factor. If your doctor says you cannot tolerate airborne irritants, this nonexertional limitation restricts the types of sedentary jobs you can do. For more information, see our article on not being able to do sedentary work.