Symptoms of lung infections, such as chest pain, fever, shortness of breath, weight loss, and fatigue, can make it really difficult to work. Lung infections like pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi or can be related to other medical conditions like cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis.
Pneumonia and other lung infections that go away in a few weeks or months won't qualify for Social Security disability benefits. One of the basic requirements for disability is that your medical condition must prevent you from doing a substantial amount of work—earning about $1,500 or more per month—for at least a year. Because even severe lung infections can usually be treated effectively within a few months' time, it can be difficult to meet this one-year requirement.
But if the Social Security Administration (SSA) agrees that your chronic lung infection meets the one-year requirement (meaning that it has either lasted that long or is anticipated to last that long), there are a couple of ways that you may be able to win your claim.
Once the SSA has established that you meet the basic eligibility requirements for disability, the agency will next see if your illness meets the requirements of one of the conditions in its Listing of Impairments (called listings).
If you have difficulty breathing and severely limited airflow, you may qualify under the SSA's listing for chronic respiratory disorders. Respiratory conditions that can meet this listing include:
To meet the listing for chronic respiratory disorders, you must take a spirometry test, which measures how much air you inhale and exhale and at what rate you breathe.
The outcome of your spirometry test will show how badly your lungs have been damaged by the infection. The SSA will then use this information to determine whether you meet the listing requirements. For details, you can look at our article on chronic pulmonary disease for information on how to determine if your spirometry results meet the requirements of the listing.
Even if you don't meet a disability listing—say your spirometry results aren't quite low enough—you can still win your claim, but it will be harder. To be approved at this point, the SSA must conclude that your lung condition is so poor that it prevents you from doing your old job and all other less demanding jobs.
Social Security will prepare a detailed report using the medical evidence in your file that discusses how your condition affects your ability to do certain strength-related work activities. Examples of strength-related activities are:
The SSA will use the results of this report to determine your "residual functional capacity," or RFC.
Your RFC is the most you can do on a regular and sustained basis (full-time). Your RFC will include an opinion that you can do either heavy, medium, light, or sedentary work. And if the SSA thinks you still have the RFC to do a sedentary job (such as a desk job) despite your condition, the agency will deny you benefits unless you're older than 50 or 55 and have little education or job training.
To make sure the SSA gets the full picture of your physical limitations, it's important that you ask your treating physician to prepare a medical source statement.
When deciding if you can work, the SSA will also consider any other limitations caused by your condition, called non-exertional limitations. Examples of non-exertional limitations include:
Here are a couple of examples of how the SSA evaluates non-exertional limitations.
For more information about how the SSA decides these claims, see our article on using a combination of exertional and non-exertional limitations to help win your claim.
In addition to meeting the medical requirements for disability, you must also meet the financial and legal requirements of one of the disability programs administered by Social Security.
SSDI. Social Security Disability insurance (SSDI, or simply SSD) is available to people with qualifying work histories for employers who paid taxes to the SSA. For more information on eligibility requirements, see our section on SSDI eligibility.
SSI. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a need-based benefit available to disabled people with little or no work history. You must meet certain income and other asset limits to qualify. For more information, see our section on SSI eligibility.
To file for disability, you can:
Updated January 3, 2023