Requirements to join any branch of the military include a high level of physical fitness and generally good health. This means that asthma can sometimes disqualify a person from serving in the Armed Forces.
Depending on your personal history with asthma and the severity of the disease, you may be able to obtain a waiver allow you to join the military.
Each branch has its own asthma screening methods and requirements for waivers. There are also many resources that may allow you to continue serving if you develop asthma during your time in the military.
Read on to learn more about how you can join the military with diagnosed asthma and what other options may be available if you are not able to enlist.
According to the 2018 “Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction into the Military Services” issued by the Department of Defense, having a history of asthma after 13 years of age is considered to be a “disqualifying condition” for service.
But same document sets out the terms in which an individual may apply for a medical waiver.
Having a waiver approved requires a review of a candidate’s medical history and performance on a test of pulmonary function (how well the lungs work) in addition to passage of a complete physical examination.
Here are the general steps for obtaining a waiver early in the recruitment process:
- Fill out a medical pre-screening form that includes an accurate account of your medical history, including your history of asthma, and some family medical history to the best of your knowledge.
- Send the form to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), an independent agency not associated with any military branch.
- At the MEPS stage, medical personnel can deem your asthma as too severe to continue the process.
- If your asthma was deemed too severe but is mild or well controlled, you may be able to proceed with the physical and a waiver application. A complete medical evaluation is included in your application file.
- Before recruitment, your evaluation and waiver are reviewed by your recruiting commander. This person will ultimately decide to grant or dismiss your waiver request.
Getting a waiver is a relatively recent development.
Before 2004, a history of asthma at any age could disqualify someone from military service. After 2004, the cutoff for asthma symptoms after 13 was made when a study of 587 recruits found that a history of mild asthma was not associated with excessive medical care or early attrition from military service.
The military has also acknowledged that the prevalence of asthma is increasing in the general public. By denying entry to a group of potential recruits, the military would be reducing the size of its recruitment pool.
Should I join the military with asthma?
Even if your symptoms become milder as an adult, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology states that asthma can’t be outgrown.
Asthma is a chronic condition in which many people may develop milder symptoms or fewer attacks as adults. Environmental or lifestyle conditions, as well as other respiratory health problems, can trigger an attack well into adulthood.
In general, the waiver guidelines and requirements related to asthma are similar across all branches of the military.
Here are some specific rules that you may encounter across different branches of the U.S. military.
In 2017, the Air Force modified some of its more restrictive medical standards, including how concerns about asthma are handled.
The Air Force announced it would use the Methacholine Challenge Test to help diagnose asthma and measure its severity. In the test, candidates inhale methacholine, which can cause a tightening of the airways similar to what happens during an asthma attack.
A test is considered positive if metacholine causes at least a 20 percent decrease in your breathing ability. A negative test usually rules out asthma.
Asthma is disqualifying only if symptoms are present after a recruit turns 13 years old.
The Coast Guard also typically disqualifies candidates who have had asthma symptoms after turning 13 years old.
The Coast Guard notes that asthma symptoms may not always be present during a physical exam, so a careful review of a recruit’s medical history and medication use is important.
The Coast Guard also discourages health waiver applications from students applying to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, though all waiver applications are considered in the context of a student’s overall application.
Like other branches, the Navy follows a cutoff at 13 years old for asthma symptoms in determining an applicant’s fitness for duty.
A waiver may be approved if an applicant has:
- been asymptomatic for at least five years
- had a normal pulmonary function test within the last year
- had normal metacholine challenge test results within the last year
A Naval aviation applicant must also complete the Navy’s ARWG Asthma worksheet to be considered for a waiver. Navy personnel who develop asthma symptoms while they are serving must apply for a waiver to remain in the service.
The Marine Corps is the smallest and most selective of the Armed Services, meaning that it also observes strict guidelines for obtaining health waivers for any cause.
The Marines observe the same review process involving MEPS and the guidelines for no symptoms after 13 years of age.
Because asthma and related respiratory problems can worsen over time, it’s important that military servicemembers obtain a thorough evaluation of their health in order to help get treatment to control symptoms, even if you’re already in the military.
As with signs of any medical condition during military service, asthma symptoms should also be taken seriously. Every effort should be made to determine whether an individual can continue with military service in order to avoid unnecessary risk to their own life or to the lives of others who serve with them.
Medical research supports the involvement of people with asthma in the military with basic treatment for symptoms.
Researchers involved in this 2015 study also suggest that an asthma diagnosis should be given along with the following tests to confirm the accuracy of the diagnosis:
- how strongly the airways react to asthma triggers (bronchoprovocation)
- how the heart behaves during asthma diagnosis tests (pulmonary function test)
You may have a greater chance of receiving a waiver if:
- you are currently being treated for asthma
- your symptoms appear to be well controlled
- your symptoms are relatively mild
Poorly controlled symptoms are likely to lead to a waiver disapproval and disqualification from joining the military.
Waivers for certain positions in the military, such as pilots and other aviation personnel, are also generally harder to obtain with a history of asthma, but other military occupations may have more lenient guidelines.
It may also be possible to work for the Department of Defense (DoD) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a civilian if actual military service is prohibited. Civilian jobs within the military don’t typically require such strict medical evaluations.
Myth: Smokers aren’t allowed to join the military.
While smoking can certainly inhibit a person’s respiratory health and overall fitness, current and former smokers are not barred from military service.
Myth: Current military personnel are discharged if they develop asthma.
If they are debilitating enough, some health and medical issues do result in an honorable discharge from the service, but asthma doesn’t always result in a discharge.
In some cases, a person may be reassigned to a different job that is less likely to trigger asthma.
Asthma can be a disqualifying condition that prohibits military service.
If your symptoms are mild, you may be able to obtain a waiver that can allow you to join. This can involve passing one or more tests of respiratory strength, as well as completing a physical examination.
Flight duty in the various branches may also be more difficult to obtain a waiver for, but other roles in the Armed Services may be more accepting. Talk with a recruiter to learn more.