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About Asthma and Disability

Can I Get Social Security Disability Benefits for Asthma?

If you have asthma, Social Security disability benefits may be available. To determine whether you are disabled by asthma, the Social Security Administration first considers whether your asthma is severe enough to meet or equal a listing at Step 3 of the Sequential Evaluation Process. See How to Get Disability Benefits for Asthma by Meeting a Listing. If you meet or equal a listing because of asthma, you are considered disabled. If your asthma is not severe enough to equal or meet a listing, Social Security Administration must assess your residual functional capacity (RFC) (the work you can still do, despite your asthma), to determine whether you qualify for benefits at Step 4 and Step 5 of the Sequential Evaluation Process. See Residual Functional Capacity Assessment for Asthma.

About Asthma and Disability

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a type of chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). It is a chronic inflammatory disease of the breathing or bronchial tubes (see Figure 1 below). Muscles in the bronchial tubes constrict due to irritation, which can be an innate problem or can be caused by inhaling certain substances. In addition to constriction, inflammation causes swelling and excess mucus that further narrows the bronchial tubes. The combination of constricting muscles and inflammation obstructs the flow of air in the lungs. Asthmatic attacks can cause shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing.

Asthma can also be called asthmatic bronchitis, chronic asthmatic bronchitis, or reactive airways disease. Asthma frequently begins in childhood or adolescence, but can occur at any time in adult life.

Diagram of the bronchial tubes and lungs

Figure 1: Diagram of the bronchial tubes and lungs.

Severity of Asthma Attacks

Asthma attacks can be mild and infrequent, responding to an inhaled bronchodilator. They can also be frequent and severe enough to be life-threatening. A diagnosis of asthma alone does not mean you are entitled to Social Security disability benefits. When properly treated, people with asthma have participated in the Olympics, professional sports, amateur sports, and school-related sports without danger or difficulty.

Treatment for Asthma

For years researchers have studied genetic, environmental, and immunological factors that may play a role in asthma. Despite gaps in knowledge, they have made considerable progress in treatment. Both the inflammation and the bronchial narrowing must be controlled for effective treatment. Patients with chronic asthma who receive inhaled steroids to reduce inflammation along with bronchodilators to relax tight muscles do better than those who receive bronchodilators alone. Many asthma patients do not receive the proper type or optimum dose of medications. Also, some asthma patients continue to smoke cigarettes, and others cannot or will not follow prescribed therapy.

Asthma Attack Triggers

Asthma is worsened by the air pollution common in larger cities. Intense emotion, cold air, dusts, pollens, and other types of air particulates can bring on an attack. Asthma attacks can be related to exposure to various pollutant or industrial gases, particularly sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitric oxide (NO2). Respiratory viral infections can make bronchial inflammation worse and can precipitate asthmatic attacks. Allergic rhinitis (“hay fever”) and sinusitis are associated with worse asthmatic symptoms. Some medications tend to increase bronchial mucous secretion and bronchial constriction and can worsen symptoms. Heartburn can worsen bronchial irritation if stomach acid is inhaled into the airway. So multiple medical and environmental factors must be evaluated and controlled for the best therapeutic results. See Asthma Triggers in the Workplace.

Related Conditions

Individuals with asthma can also have other types of obstructive or restrictive lung disease, which can complicate diagnosis, treatment, and the Social Security disability determination. Smokers with emphysema and chronic bronchitis have inflammation of their airways that results in broncho-constriction, although they would not be considered to have true asthma. They may be treated with bronchodilator drugs, such as theophylline, if the constriction is reversible. But be aware that the Social Security Administration will not assume that you have a particular condition just because you take a particular medication.

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