Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that makes breathing difficult. It can cause:

  • coughing that creates a large amount of mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • tightness in the chest
  • other symptoms that restrict breathing

Causes of COPD

The main cause of COPD is smoking. Most people who have the condition smoke or have a history of smoking in the past. Exposure to other lung irritants such as air pollution, chemical vapor and dust over long periods of time is also thought to cause COPD. 

When you inhale, air goes into your windpipe and to your lungs. In the lungs, the air enters smaller tubes called bronchi, which branch into even smaller tubes called bronchioles. At the end of the bronchioles are small round air sacs called alveoli. Running through the walls of the alveoli are small blood vessels called capillaries. 

The oxygen from the air you breathe passes through the alveoli and into the blood inside the capillaries. While this happens, your body gets rid of carbon dioxide by passing it through the capillaries into the air sacs. When you exhale, you release carbon dioxide out of your body. 

In healthy lungs, airways and air sacs are elastic, allowing air sacs to inflate and deflate easily. COPD makes breathing hard because it allows less air to flow in and out of the lungs. Some reasons for this include:

  • a loss of elasticity in the airways and air sacs
  • the destruction of the walls between air sacs
  • the thickening and inflammation of the walls of airways
  • an increase in mucus in the airways, which can obstruct them

Types of COPD 

COPD is defined as an inflammatory condition of the airway that causes obstruction. The two conditions it includes are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema

Emphysema is associated with damage between the walls of the air sacs, which causes them to weaken. The walls of air sacs may also break, causing the many small air sacs to turn into larger ones. This reduces the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that moves into and out of the capillaries, making breathing less effective. This also can cause stiffening of the lungs and prevent air from flowing easily.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis refers to the constant irritation and inflammation of the lining of the airways, causing the lining to thicken. Large amounts of thick mucus form in these narrowed airways. This makes breathing very difficult.

The majority of people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is a progressive disease, meaning that it worsens over time. Often, symptoms develop slowly over time, making it progressively more challenging to carry out your daily activities. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of disability. And while many people feel that the illness limits their ability to engage in activities both at home and at work, others find that with certain modifications, they can hold a job and work both productively and comfortably. But how do you find such accommodations.

Disability and Work Accommodations for People with COPD

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), some chronic conditions are considered to be disabilities and you have certain rights under federal law if you’re disabled. In many cases, COPD can be considered a disability. The ADA says that a condition is considered a disability if it’s an impairment that’s “substantially limiting.” According to the ADA, an impairment is substantially limiting when it “prevents an individual from performing a major life activity or when it significantly restricts the condition, manner, or duration under which an individual can perform a major life activity.” 

In other words, if breathlessness and other symptoms of COPD limit you from doing what is expected of you on the job, such as being able to walk as much as you are expected to, your employer must make “reasonable accommodations” so that you perform your job, as long as it doesn't pose a hardship for the employer. Reasonable accommodations for a person with COPD might include:

  • having a parking space close to the work site
  • being allowed to use a scooter or motorized cart to get around a large work area
  • being allowed to work from home
  • having a smoke-free, perfume-free, chemical-free, and dust-free workplace
  • getting advanced notice about construction and cleaning
  • having a flexible schedule with time allotted for taking medications and doctor's appointments

Social Security Benefits 

It may be that your COPD is so severe that it prevents you from working at all despite such accommodations. In this case, you may be entitled to Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has rules concerning eligibility for disability benefits. You must have a condition that prevents you from earning more than $1,000 a month, and this disability must have lasted or be expected to last for a minimum of 12 months. 

There are also specific criteria relating to respiratory conditions, such as test results, treatments, and response to treatments. 

You must apply for disability benefits through the SSA, either at an office or online. You need to provide documentation of all medical testing and treatment for your condition. The SSA may also send you to another doctor to obtain further evidence to support your claim. 

The application process for Social Security disability benefits is comprehensive. It can take as long as three to five months to determine your eligibility. Social Security disability benefits can be paid only after you've been disabled for a period of five months. Benefits will be paid beginning the sixth month after the date the SSA has determined you to be disabled.