Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause challenges in the workplace, but employment may still be possible — and even beneficial.

Working with COPD depends on a number of factors, including your occupation, the amount of time you work, your age, overall health, and the severity of COPD conditions.

It may not always be possible to maintain employment if COPD has progressed or the nature of your job directly impacts your ability to breathe.

Many people do continue to work while living with COPD, and research suggests being able to do so may have a number of positive psychosocial effects.

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s an inclusive term to describe progressive lung conditions like emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

In the United States, more than 15 million adults are affected by COPD, and it’s the fourth leading cause of death in the nation.

Symptoms include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • frequent coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • excessive phlegm
  • fatigue
  • blue lips or fingertips
  • frequent respiratory infections

While smoking is the primary cause of COPD, a number of other factors may contribute to its development over time, including:

  • exposure to fumes, dust, or chemicals on the job
  • air pollution from biomass fuel
  • genetics
  • childhood asthma
  • childhood/developmental events (e.g., chronic respiratory infections, birth prematurity)

There’s no cure for COPD. You may be able to slow its progression and regain some of your lung function with treatment and proper precautions.

Yes. You may be able to work with COPD. Some jobs may be more challenging than others, however.

In COPD, chronic inflammation and thickening of lung tissue decreases the amount of air able to move through your lungs. This can make any physical exertion result in breathlessness, and in more advanced stages, it may make it almost impossible to do certain physical tasks.

If your current job is physical in nature, it’s possible you may not longer be able to safely meet that role’s requirements.

The lack of oxygen circulation in your body from reduced airflow can also create a sense of fatigue or confusion that might complicate long-format tasks or precision work.

In a 2019 review, people living with COPD were found more likely to not be working, and out of an international sample, approximately 40% of people living with COPD retired early, at an average age of 54.

Among the reasons cited for stopping work were:

  • worsening of COPD symptoms
  • challenges getting to work
  • stigma and lack of consideration from superiors regarding COPD

The stages of COPD

COPD can be categorized by severity using the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease standard, otherwise known as the GOLD system.

It places COPD into four grades, each determined by the level of airflow obstruction as you breathe in and out, and measured as the forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1).

  • Mild: FEV1 of 80% of higher
  • Moderate: FEV1 between 50% and 79%
  • Severe: FEV1 between 30% and 49%
  • Very severe: FEV1 less than 30%

The GOLD system also assigns a letter grouping, based off your symptom frequency and their impact on your life:

  • Group A: less symptoms, low flare-up risk
  • Group B: more symptoms, low flare-up risk
  • Group C: less symptoms, high flare-up risk
  • Group D: more symptoms, high flare-up risk

As COPD progresses, it may become more challenging to maintain work, though research suggests COPD severity may not be a direct indication of how likely you’re to stay working.

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Not every job is appropriate when you live with COPD. Jobs that have high physical demands or routine exposure to lung irritants may make COPD symptoms worse.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) note occupations that may contribute to COPD include:

  • housekeeping
  • farming
  • motor vehicle repair
  • material-moving machine operation
  • nonconstruction labor

A 2019 UK-based analysis found the jobs with the highest COPD risk factors included:

  • sculptor
  • painter
  • engraver
  • art restorer
  • gardener
  • grounds person
  • park keeper
  • food, drink, and tobacco processor
  • plastics processor
  • moulder
  • agriculture and fishing occupations
  • warehouse stock handler
  • warehouse stacker

The high risk was attributed to exposure to hazardous airborne pathogens, chemicals, organic dusts, spores, bacteria, and fumes.

What jobs can you do with COPD?

Getting outside isn’t an automatic “yes” when it comes to finding a good job for COPD.

Many outside jobs are physically demanding, and while the fresh air might seem better than a closed office space, pollutants, fumes, and dust can be a natural byproduct of outdoor work projects.

Ultimately, how well your job fits your needs may be a very individual decision. However, you might find success in positions that require less physical exertion and allow the freedom to take necessary breaks.

You might consider positions that allow you to work in quality-controlled airflow or encourage remote, at-home positions.

Options that may fit these criteria include:

  • medical coding
  • call center representative
  • data entry
  • online industry technical support
  • remote office assistant
  • bookkeeper
  • record filer

The Social Security Administration (SSA) considers COPD a disability under Section 3.02 in the “chronic respiratory disorders” section of the regulatory Blue Book.

To receive disability benefits, you’ll be asked to complete testing to show your respiratory function is below SSA standards for work ability.

SSA may also require documentation from your healthcare team that states whether other forms of work, like sedentary work, are limited by stress, fatigue, or a lack of concentration associated with COPD.

There’s no cure for COPD, but treatment options are available. Your healthcare team may recommend:

You may also benefit from a pulmonary rehabilitation program made up of multiple, noninvasive approaches intended to improve your quality of life with COPD.

Pulmonary rehabilitation may last several weeks to months and can include:

  • breathing techniques
  • COPD education
  • psychological counseling
  • nutritional guidance
  • exercise programs

COPD is a chronic, progressive lung condition that can make it difficult to breathe, and in some situations, work.

Jobs requiring physical exertion, uninterrupted precision work, or air pollutants exposure may not be suitable when you live with COPD.

You likely don’t have to give up a career just because of your diagnosis. Treatment can help you manage the symptoms of COPD, and many workplaces offer accommodations to help retain COPD workers.