In this free educational guide on COPD, we provide you with a general discussion about this severe medical condition, and review what evidence or tests are needed to help prove that you are eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

For your general knowledge about this medical condition, we have included in this guide helpful information about what the disease is, symptoms, diagnosis, common treatment, and where you can find more help and information for this medical condition. This guide may also provide information about current legal issues that may be of value to you. This guide is not intended as legal advice or as a legal opinion.

After reading this guide, if you still have questions or would like to discuss your case with us, please call Chad Brown Law at (336) 962-5373. We are here to help you get the benefits you deserve.

1. What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is a respiratory disorder that causes breathing difficulty. COPD is a progressive disease that worsens over time and is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

People with COPD overproduce the mucus that typically coats and protects the inside of the respiratory system. The large amounts of mucus can build up in the throat, esophagus, and lungs causing wheezing, shortness of breath, chronic cough, tightness in the chest, and many other chronic symptoms.

1a. Understanding COPD

COPD relates to two distinct diseases in the American medical community, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is when the bronchial tubes are inflamed, making breathing extremely difficult. Emphysema is when the alveoli (air sacs lining the lungs) are damaged over time, eventually reaching the point where oxygen is not transferred into red blood cells at a normal level.

Most people with COPD suffer from both chronic bronchitis and emphysema at the same time. Therefore, doctors use the term COPD to designate that a person suffers from both conditions at once.

At the onset of COPD, breathing is difficult, typically, only after a person has exerted himself with physical activity. As the disease progresses, a person with COPD may begin to experience difficulty breathing even while at rest.

1b. Causes of COPD and Preventions

Medical studies have found that smoking tobacco products causes 80 percent of COPD cases. Other air pollutants, such as chemical vapors, cooking fumes, and dust created in manufacturing environments are known to cause an increased risk of developing COPD. Additionally, a rare genetic disease can cause COPD.

While there is no known cure for COPD, there are treatments that can help patients live a more normal life through minimizing the damage done to the lungs and making breathing easier when the disease flares up.

2. Common Medical Terms Associated with COPD

Alveoli – Tiny air sacs (only one cell thick) in the lungs at the end of the smallest airways, where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs.

Bronchial tubes – Tubes where air passes through to your lungs.

Chronic bronchitis – An inflammation of the bronchial tubes that can make the movement of air in and out of the lungs difficult.

Chronic pulmonary insufficiency – A condition where the lungs are unable to take in enough oxygen and expel enough carbon dioxide to meet your body’s basic needs.

Emphysema – A lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis together are referred to as Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, or COPD.

Obstructive lung disease – This term refers to several diseases that cause a blockage of the respiratory system and breathing-related complications.

3. COPD Symptoms

Symptoms do not usually occur until significant damage has occurred in the lungs. A persistent cough, breathlessness, and lack of energy are the major symptoms of COPD. Wheezing and tightness in the chest also are common, as are frequent respiratory infections. The main symptom for chronic bronchitis is a cough that produces sputum that is clear, green, yellow, or white; and that you have for at least three months in a year for two straight years. Severe symptoms that you should seek immediate emergency care for include:

  • A hard time catching your breath or talking.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray. (This is a sign of a low oxygen level in your blood.)
  • You are not mentally alert.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • The recommended treatment for symptoms is not working.

4. How is COPD Diagnosed?

Your doctor will determine that you have COPD based on signs and symptoms, your family and medical history, and by tests. The doctor will listen to your breathing with a stethoscope, and ask you if you have a cough, how long it has lasted, and amount of any mucus you may cough up.

The main test to determine COPD is a spirometry test. The spirometry test determines how fast you can blow out air from your lungs, how much air you breathe in and out, and how well oxygen is delivered to your blood. Chest x-rays or chest CT scans can also be used to take a closer look at your lungs. Blood tests and sputum studies may also be done.

5. What is the Common Treatment for COPD?

The goals of COPD treatment include:

  • Relieving your symptoms.
  • Slowing the progress of the disease.
  • Improving your exercise tolerance (your ability to stay active).
  • Preventing and treating complications.
  • Improving your overall health.

Life style changes are usually a part of your overall treatment plan for COPD. If you smoke, stop! There are programs designed to help you stop smoking, and most insurance plans offer coverage. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke and places with dust, fumes, or other toxic substances that you may inhale.

A variety of medications can ease the symptoms of COPD:

  • A variety of antibiotics are prescribed to treat respiratory infections, especially during severe flare-ups of COPD.
  • Bronchodilators are usually taken via an inhaler. They relax the muscles of the lungs and open up airways.
  • Expectorants loosen mucus so you can expel it with a cough. It is important to clear the lungs of mucus, which accumulates quickly in people with COPD and can lead to infections.
  • Long-acting inhalers, used during the later stages of the disease, are used every day and work for about 12 hours.
  • Short-acting inhalers, generally prescribed in the early stages of COPD, last four to six hours. They are used as needed to improve breathing.
  • Steroids reduce swelling in the airways. They are usually inhaled, often from a device that also contains a bronchodilator. For advanced cases of COPD, they are often taken in pill form. In oral form, steroids may result in serious side effects such as developing diabetes, osteoporosis, or cataracts. It can also cause weight gain and cause you to become more vulnerable to infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.

If you have severe COPD and low levels of oxygen in your blood, oxygen therapy may help you breathe better. Oxygen therapy is administered by using nasal prongs or a mask to deliver oxygen directly into your nose or mouth. You may only need to wear the oxygen system for a few hours a day, or you may need it constantly as the disease progresses.

People with severe COPD may need long-term oxygen therapy to help them with performing daily activities. Consistent use of oxygen therapy may also help those with severe COPD reduce the damage done to their hearts and other organs, therefore prolonging their lifespan. Oxygen therapy has also helped COPD patients sleep more during the night and improve their alertness and energy during the day.

Health professionals may offer pulmonary rehabilitation, which combines exercise, breathing therapy, advice on eating well, and education about COPD.

6. COPD – What has to be proven for you to be considered disabled by Social Security?

Social Security maintains a list of medical conditions that are so severe they automatically mean that you are disabled. This list of conditions are ones that are expected to be permanent, or expected to result in death, or have a certain length of time that it must last. Each medical condition on this list has a complete description of what symptoms or conditions have to be present with your medical condition for you to “meet the listing”. The complete medical listing for Chronic Pulmonary Insufficiency, which includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Social Security’s medical listing 3.02, is found on this Social Security Administration website and is printed below for discussion:

If you do not “meet” this listing, you may still be considered disabled if you are not able to do your past relevant work, or you are not able to do any other work that you may have the education or experience to do.)

6a. Social Security’s Rules for COPD

“3.02 Chronic pulmonary insufficiency

A. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease due to any cause, with the FEV1 equal to or less than the values specified in Table I corresponding to the person’s height without shoes. (In cases of marked spinal deformity, see 3.00E.)

Table I

Height without Shoes (centimeters) Height without Shoes (inches) FEV1 Equal to or less than (L,BTPS)
154 or less 60 or less 1.05
155-160 61-63 1.15
161-165 64-65 1.25
166-170 66-67 1.35
171-175 68-69 1.45
176-180 70-71 1.55
181 or more 72 or more 1.65

6b. Chad Brown’s Explanation of Social Security’s Rules

For you to “meet the listing” and thereby qualify for Social Security disability benefits, a doctor must diagnose you with COPD and the extent of your lung impairment must meet certain breathing test readings. The chart above relates to your height without shoes and your breathing capacity for you to be considered disabled. There are several other disabling components for Chronic Pulmonary Insufficiency in the listing, but the “A” part of this listing solely applies to COPD.

7. Internet Resources for COPD

For other general information about Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs and how the law firm of Chad Brown Law can help you, visit:

For a complete listing of conditions that Social Security considers disabling, go to Social Security’s website at:

For medical information on COPD, go to the American Lung Associations website:

Or, Healthline’s website at:

8. Community Resources for COPD

The American Lung Association offers local support to people with COPD. The Better Breathers Club locations are on this website: carolina.html

The COPD Foundation offers information about support and services throughout the US on this website: