Can You Get Disability for Asthma?

If you have frequent and severe asthma attacks that can't be controlled with medication, you should qualify for disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that causes your airways to become inflamed and narrow, making it hard to breathe. About 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma.

Is Asthma a Disability?

Most cases of asthma are relatively mild and can be managed with at-home medication and lifestyle changes. But around 10% of asthma cases are considered severe and can limit your ability to carry out normal daily activities. In these cases, asthma is a disability.

Although asthma is a common reason that people apply for disability benefits, Social Security denies most of those applications. But, if your asthma is severe—that is, you have frequent asthma attacks that require hospitalization—you're more likely to get disability benefits.

Here's what you need to know about asthma as a disability and what the Social Security Administration (SSA) will need to see to approve your disability claim based on asthma.

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Asthma causes inflammation in your bronchial tubes, which carry air in and out of your lungs. When you have an asthma attack, your airways swell and tighten (constrict), and they can fill with mucus, restricting airflow.

Not everyone with asthma experiences the same symptoms. Some common symptoms of asthma include:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing, and
  • tightness, pain, or pressure in your chest.

You could experience all of these symptoms or only some of them, and the severity of your symptoms can vary widely. Some asthma sufferers have only mild-to-moderate symptoms but have them almost daily. Others have bouts of serious, even life-threatening, asthma symptoms followed by periods with mild or no symptoms.

What Causes Asthma?

We don't know exactly what causes asthma, but the medical community has determined that it's likely a combination of genetics and environmental factors. Allergies also seem to play a role. Working in some environments (like those with a lot of dust or fumes) can aggravate your condition.

How Is Asthma Treated?

Controlling your asthma might require a variety of at-home medications and tactics. Severe asthma is often treated with multiple medications, including quick-acting medicines (like rescue inhalers) and long-acting medicines aimed at reducing the number and/or severity of your asthma attacks.

Your asthma treatment might include a combination of the following:

  • inhalers
  • nebulizers
  • oral medications, and
  • limiting exposure to the things that trigger your asthma attacks.

Treating mild asthma symptoms usually results in easier breathing within a few minutes or hours. More serious asthma episodes last longer and generally require immediate medical help, including hospitalization and intravenous medications.

Will My Asthma Qualify for Disability Benefits?

If your asthma is controlled fairly well by using at-home therapies and avoiding asthma triggers (like dust or pet dander), Social Security believes you should still be able to work.

But severe asthma requires more aggressive therapies, often involving hospitalizations. Frequent, serious asthma attacks that require you to go to the hospital can cause you to miss a lot of work. If your asthma seriously affects your ability to work, the SSA is more likely to consider you disabled.

Meeting the Disability Listing for Asthma

If you can meet the qualifications under the disability listing for adult asthma in Social Security's Blue Book, the SSA will automatically approve your claim. (For children, see our article on disability and childhood asthma.)

As an adult with asthma, you must meet two requirements under the listing to automatically qualify for disability benefits:

  • In a one-year period, you've had at least three asthma attacks (also called exacerbations or complications) that required you to stay in a hospital for at least 48 hours each time. The hospitalizations must've been at least 30 days apart, and
  • your FEV1 (forced expiratory volume) (a lung function test) must be low for your age, gender, and height (according to the chart in Social Security's asthma listing 3.03).

Alternatively, if you have chronic bronchitis in addition to your asthma (called chronic asthmatic bronchitis), you might qualify for benefits based on the lung function/breathing test results alone. To automatically qualify for disability based on chronic asthmatic bronchitis, your lung function (FEV1 value) must meet the level that's required for COPD (which is lower than that required for asthma alone). Get the details on what it takes to win disability benefits for COPD.

Can You Qualify for Disability Because of Job Restrictions?

Even if you don't qualify for disability automatically under the SSA's asthma listing, you might still be able to get Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). If your condition doesn't match the listing, Social Security will then consider the limitations your asthma puts on your ability to work a regular job.

The SSA will develop an RFC for you—that is, a residual functional capacity assessment. Your RFC is what you're able to do despite your impairment. For example, because of your asthma, your doctor might have restricted you from the following:

  • heavy exertion
  • working around excessive dust and fumes, or
  • working in extreme hot or cold temperatures.

Social Security will include these job restrictions in your RFC. If your prior job required any of the restricted activities, Social Security wouldn't expect you to return to that work.

The agency must then determine if there's any other type of work that you can do. If you're older than 50, you have a better chance of getting disability benefits this way.

Learn more about how Social Security uses the RFC to decide what kind of work you can do.

Proving Your Disability Case: What Should Be in Your Medical Record?

To qualify for disability benefits for asthma, Social Security will need proof that your condition keeps you from working. Up-to-date medical records that include statements from your doctor(s) that support your claim are critical to proving your case.

Your medical records should contain documentation of each of your asthma attacks that sent you to the hospital or required emergency treatment. You should have records of recent lung function tests, including:

  • spirometry, which records how much air you can blow out (called forced expiratory volume or FEV) and
  • arterial blood gas studies (ABGS), which measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.

Your medical records for each episode requiring hospitalization should also include:

  • what treatment was administered
  • how long each treatment was administered, and
  • how well you responded to the treatment.

Your doctor should also give you spirometric tests when you're not having an asthma attack to record whether there's baseline airflow obstruction (established by FEV1 and FVC tests).

In addition, your medical records must show that you've been complying with the at-home treatment ordered by your doctor (for example, using your inhaler). Learn more about how compliance with treatment recommendations affects disability.

Social Security requires that your condition has made you unable to work or is expected to keep you from working for at least a year. Because of this rule, the SSA will want to see medical records documenting your asthma attacks for at least one year, or the agency will wait until you've been evaluated for one full year before issuing a disability decision.

How to Apply for Disability Because of Asthma

You have several options when it comes to applying for Social Security disability benefits. You can apply for benefits online or by phone at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778). You can also apply for disability in person by contacting your local Social Security office.

You should submit any medical records, doctors' reports, and recent test results you have. Don't worry if you don't have everything. Social Security will help you gather any documents you're missing.

Learn more about how to apply for Social Security disability benefits.

Updated August 19, 2022

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