Bronchiectasis (brawn-kee-EK-tuh-sis) and pneumoconiosis (new-moh-koh-nee-OH-sis) are types of lung conditions that can make it difficult to breathe. These pulmonary illnesses can cause you to get tired easily, and you might find it hard to complete a simple daily routine without getting out of breath. If your symptoms are severe enough to keep you from working for at least twelve months, you could qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
Bronchiectasis occurs when the large airways (bronchi) to the lungs become damaged, causing mucus to build up and obstruct airflow, usually as a result of an infection.
Pneumoconiosis is the medical term for a group of lung diseases caused by inhalation of toxic particles, such as coal dust, silica, or asbestos. These particles inflame the lungs, creating scar tissue and making it difficult for the lungs to stretch and expand when breathing.
Bronchiectasis can be congenital—meaning it was present at birth—or acquired. Several diseases can cause acquired bronchiectasis, such as cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, and HIV. Other conditions that can cause bronchiectasis include blockages in the airways due to tumors, severe heartburn, and drug abuse.
Types of pneumoconiosis include coal miners' pneumoconiosis ("black lung disease"), asbestosis, and silicosis. Generally, these conditions occur in people working in professions where they're more likely to be exposed to inflammatory particles, such as coal mining or construction.
Characteristic early symptoms of bronchiectasis and pneumoconiosis are chronic cough and shortness of breath. As the conditions progress, additional symptoms can include:
Advanced bronchiectasis and pneumoconiosis may result in complications such as respiratory failure, heart disease, and chronic lung infections. If the infections are severe enough, bacteria in the mucus trapped in the airways can cause brain abscesses. In instances where the pneumoconiosis is the result of inhaling coal dust, cancer might occur.
Antibiotics (such as amoxicillin or clarithromycin) are the most commonly used treatment for bronchiectasis. Oral antibiotics are recommended for mild infections or flare-ups, but more severe infections might need intravenous (IV) antibiotics, which have intense side effects.
Pneumoconiosis is treated using a class of medications called bronchodilators, which help open up the lung passageways making it easier to breathe.
People with reduced lung functioning can find themselves limited in many ways. When symptoms from bronchiectasis or pneumoconiosis interfere with your life to the extent that you can't work full-time, 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:
Before Social Security can determine if you're medically or vocationally disabled, the agency will need to see that you have at least a twelve-month period during which you haven't worked at the level of substantial gainful activity. So if you're able to manage your respiratory symptoms well enough to keep working, you might not qualify for disability benefits yet.
Social Security considers some health conditions to be especially severe. If your medical records contain specific evidence that the agency has already determined is enough to show that you're disabled, you can qualify for disability benefits without having to prove that no jobs exist that you can do. In Social Security lingo, this is called meeting a listed impairment.
Bronchiectasis is one of the listed impairments. Under the requirements of listing 3.07, you can be found disabled when:
Pneumoconiosis isn't a listed impairment on its own, but Social Security will evaluate evidence documenting it under the listing for chronic respiratory disorders, listing 3.02. To meet this listing, you'll need to have a lung functioning test that shows specific results demonstrating "pulmonary insufficiency." You can read more about these (very technical) listing requirements in our article on how to get disability for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Even if you don't meet the requirements of one of the respiratory listings, you can still qualify for disability if Social Security doesn't think you have the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform your past, or any other, work. Your RFC is a set of limitations that reflect the most you're capable of doing in a work setting.
How Social Security assesses your RFC. The agency determines your RFC by reviewing your medical records and activities of daily living for evidence of your functional limitations. If you get out of breath after walking 50 feet or lifting more than 20 pounds, for example, your RFC will restrict you from jobs requiring that amount of walking or lifting (also known as the exertional level).
People with respiratory illnesses will likely have an RFC with additional non-exertional restrictions like not working around dust, fumes, or pulmonary irritants. Social Security has to take into consideration all of your limitations when determining your RFC, so if you have other conditions—physical and mental—besides bronchiectasis or pneumoconiosis, your RFC will reflect those as well.
How Social Security uses your RFC. Social Security will compare your RFC with the demands of your past jobs to see if you could do them now. For example, if you were diagnosed with pneumoconiosis as a result of inhalation of particles at your job site, environmental restrictions in your RFC will rule out your past work. If you're over the age of 50, this might be enough to find you disabled under a special set of circumstances known as the medical-vocational grid rules.
If you're under 50, Social Security will need to see that you can't do even the easiest types of jobs. It's difficult, but not impossible, to show that you can't do a basic sit-down job. These jobs still require you to lift and carry ten-pound objects, concentrate on simple tasks, and maintain regular attendance, but symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath can make these duties challenging. For more information, see our article on not being able to do sedentary work.
Getting disability benefits can be a lengthy, stressful process, especially if you don't see an approval ("award") immediately on the horizon. Here are some tips for you to strengthen your application and increase your chances of winning your case:
Finally, consider hiring an experienced disability attorney or advocate to help you with your claim for disability benefits. Your lawyer or representative can gather your medical evidence, correspond with Social Security on your behalf, and represent you at a disability hearing. You can find an attorney near you using our locator tool here.
Updated December 1, 2022