Asthma is a chronic respiratory illness that affects the way your lungs work and move air. Military service can sometimes be a cause or an aggravator of asthma that could qualify veterans for VA disability benefits. The way the United States Department of Veterans Affairs rates asthma and compensates you for disability benefits varies depending on your asthma symptoms and severity.

11 Causes of Asthma Attacks

  1. Environmental Irritants
  2. Medications
  3. Weather
  4. Physical Activity
  5. Chemicals or Gasses
  6. Gastrointestinal Conditions
  7. Respiratory Infections
  8. Preservatives in Food and Drinks
  9. Stress
  10. Allergens
  11. Secondary Conditions

The United States military has seen an uptick in asthma cases over the last several years, indicating that there may be a connection between military service and asthma symptoms. Some veterans could become eligible for VA disability for asthma, which depends on their service connection and symptoms.

What Is Asthma?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are currently about 25 million Americans living with asthma. Asthma can be a severe condition that leads to shortness of breath, chest tightening, wheezing, and asthma attacks. An asthma attack can be life-threatening if it doesn’t improve with home treatment and continues worsening.

Although many asthma cases are diagnosed in childhood, they sometimes don’t get diagnosed until adulthood. To diagnose asthma, your doctor will first go over your symptoms and medical history. Then, you may need to perform a lung function test to evaluate your breathing and confirm asthma.

Asthma diagnoses are increasing every year, and most people with asthma suffer from at least one asthma attack. Fortunately, asthma treatment advancements have lowered the severity of asthma in some patients, especially concerning life-threatening asthma attacks, thanks to drug advancements, more personalized treatment plans, and treating underlying triggers, like allergies.

11 Causes of Asthma Attacks

Multiple environmental triggers can cause asthma attacks, but some biological causes also lead to increased asthma risk. The following are some of the most common causes of asthma attacks that can range from mild to life-threatening.

1. Environmental Irritants

A wide range of environmental irritants can make even people without asthma experience respiratory difficulties, including:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Burn pit or cooking smoke
  • Dust
  • Air pollution
  • Asbestos exposure
  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Air fresheners and perfumes

These and other irritants mix with air particles, which are inhaled. People with asthma are more sensitive to these particles, so they could irritate your lungs easily and cause an asthmatic episode. If you’re filing a VA claim for disability compensation, be sure to include every environmental irritant that causes an asthma attack, along with how frequently you experience them.

2. Medications

Every person handles various medications differently, which is why some people have side effects that others don’t. For people with asthma, some medications can trigger an asthma attack as a side effect. Aspirin is one such medication with connections to asthma attacks, with as many as 20% of asthmatic adults having a sensitivity to it. Some blood pressure and heart disease medications are also risky for people with asthma.

3. Weather

Cold, humid, hot, and hazy weather can all play a role in asthma attacks. Abnormal weather conditions can make it more difficult to breathe, especially for those with asthma. Some also experience severe asthma attacks from thunderstorms. Asthmatic adults who live in cities and areas prone to air pollution or extreme weather patterns might find that they’re more affected than others.

4. Physical Activity

You might aggravate your asthma symptoms with physical activity, or you might only experience asthma symptoms when completing physical activity. Exercise can exacerbate asthma when it narrows the airways to your lungs, making it difficult for you to get enough air for regular breathing. It can be challenging to qualify for VA benefits if you only have exercise-induced asthma because it doesn’t affect multiple aspects of your life.

5. Chemicals or Gasses

Several chemicals and gasses in the air you breathe can affect asthma and lead to asthma attacks. A common trigger for asthma attacks is household cleaners that contain chemical ingredients. Other causes include gasses from cooking smoke, paint fumes, new furniture or carpeting smells, and carbon monoxide in closed garages with vehicles.

If your asthma symptoms are sensitive to chemicals and gasses, you should consider switching to all-natural products that don’t contain chemicals, perfumes, and other ingredients that aggravate your condition.

6. Gastrointestinal Conditions

Gastrointestinal conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux, sometimes coexist with asthma and can make symptoms worse. The gastrointestinal disorder is often responsible for sparking asthma symptoms because of stomach acid making its way into the respiratory system. When this happens, the lungs become aggravated, causing a chain reaction of symptoms that could ultimately lead to an asthma attack.

7. Respiratory Infections

Any respiratory infection can lead to a higher risk of asthma symptoms in people with asthma. These conditions include the flu, chronic bronchitis, and pneumonia, as well as other conditions that infect your lungs and airways. Even a superficial infection like the common cold could lead to significant and even life-threatening symptoms for people with asthma.

8. Preservatives in Food and Drinks

Some preservatives and additives in food and drinks are known to exacerbate asthma symptoms. These preservatives might appear in canned foods, jarred foods, bottled drinks, dried fruits or vegetables, and some alcohol products.

Sulfites can be especially dangerous for asthmatics. These preservatives can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, or straining to catch your breath, leading to varying degrees of asthma attacks. Some familiar names of sulfites to look for include:

  • Sodium bisulfite
  • Sodium sulfite
  • Sodium metabisulfite
  • Potassium bisulfite
  • Potassium metabisulfite

9. Stress

People under a large amount of stress or those prone to anxiety could be at a higher risk for asthma attacks. Stress and anxiety can cause many physical symptoms, like muscle tension and shortness of breath, that can make it difficult to breathe. If you frequently notice increased asthma symptoms or asthma attacks due to stress or anxiety, it’s crucial to find ways to relax. Meditation or controlled breathing could be helpful in a high-stress situation.

10. Allergens

Both environmental and food allergies can cause asthma attacks. Particles from pet dander, dust mites, mold, pollen, and other particles in the air can aggravate the lungs of a person with asthma. People at risk for anaphylaxis from specific food allergies could experience severe, life-threatening asthma attacks.  Even without a severe food allergy that causes anaphylaxis, a person could experience more wheezing and shortness of breath when in contact with the food, leading to asthma symptoms.

11. Secondary Conditions

Some secondary conditions may exist with asthma, and they could trigger asthma attacks in some people. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that interrupts your sleep at night. It commonly exists with asthma and could lead to a higher risk of asthma attacks. If your health care provider has diagnosed you with both conditions, make sure you include all medical evidence in your VA disability claim. You may be eligible to file a sleep apnea claim with a secondary service connection to receive a higher VA disability rating.

Why Do Military Veterans Suffer from Asthma?

Experts are beginning to see an increase in asthma diagnoses in soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who had not been diagnosed with asthma before their service. Although researchers are still studying the connection, it’s believed that environmental triggers, like desert dust and burn pit exposure and combustion, could contribute to the rise in diagnoses. One study found that these deployed soldiers were 24% to 30% more likely to develop asthma than non-deployed soldiers. The Department of Defense notes that 13% of military medical visits in Iraq relate to respiratory illnesses like asthma.

Asbestos exposure could also be a primary cause of active duty and veteran service members developing lung disease or aggravating bronchial asthma. Although asbestos doesn’t cause asthma, it can lead to asthma attacks when it mixes with dust and other air fibers. Asbestos-containing materials have been used in the United States military for decades, leading to an increased exposure risk for military members.

Asthma Is Now a Presumptive Disability for Certain Veterans

Receiving VA benefits for asthma just got a little bit easier for some veterans. In August 2021, asthma became a presumptive disability for veterans who served in Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, and other nearby territories. Also added to the presumptive list were rhinitis and sinusitis. 

After extensive study, the three respiratory illnesses were determined to be health conditions that stem from toxic exposure to particulate matter such as sand, dust, and burn pit smoke – all commonly found in the daily breathing air of deployed military personnel. What makes particulate matter so dangerous is that it is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and, ultimately, the bloodstream. 

The addition of these presumptive conditions comes not long after a declaration from VA Secretary Denis McDonough that the VA would do more to get help for veterans suffering from exposure illnesses. At that time, the service connection between asthma and toxic exposure was not recognized and claims for disability compensation were being denied. 

What Is a Presumptive Disability?

A presumptive disability is a chronic medical condition that is presumed to be the result of a veteran’s military service. Why is this important? The most critical task in getting a VA disability claim approved is to prove that the claimant’s condition was caused by or made worse by military service. Therefore, if you are filing a claim for a condition that has already been classified as a condition that commonly comes from military service, you simply need to prove that you meet the criteria for that presumptive condition. 

For example, suppose you developed asthma two years after leaving service and were deployed to Iraq in 2026. In that case, the VA acknowledges that it is very likely that you developed asthma because of the toxic air you breathed while deployed to the region. The only proof you’ll need to provide is that you have been diagnosed with asthma and that you deployed to Iraq. 

Who Is Eligible for Presumptive Asthma Disability Benefits?

To be eligible to claim asthma as a presumptive disability, you’ll need to prove the following in your application for VA disability compensation: 

  • A current diagnosis of chronic asthma that developed within ten years of leaving service
  • Assignment to Southwest Asia theatre of operations during August 2, 1990, to present or
  • Assignment to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, or Djibouti during September 19, 2001, to present

If you’re filing a claim for the first time, submit your application on VA Form 21-526EZ. You can file your claim online, through the mail, or in person at your regional VA office. If you previously filed for asthma and were denied, you can reapply using VA Form 20-0995 under the new presumptive disability rules. No action is required for claims that are still pending. 

The same criteria apply to veterans who want to file a disability claim for the presumptive conditions of sinusitis or rhinitis.   

Sources of Airborne Pollution

How do you know if you’ve encountered airborne pollution? Many Gulf War veterans and Post 9/11 veterans have been exposed to airborne pollution. Some common forms of air pollution include: 

  • Smoke and fumes from burn pits
  • Sand, dust, and other fine matter in the air
  • General air pollution from gases, factories, emissions, etc.
  • Smoke from oil well fires
  • Exhaust from military aircraft, vehicles, and generators

Some of these are familiar sources of pollution that we encounter regularly. The difference for deployed service members is the duration and frequency of the military exposures. Airborne pollution can cause a range of skin and respiratory irritations that go away after exposure ends. But sometimes, more severe illnesses can develop. 

The military used burn pits to get rid of waste on military deployment bases. And while it was an easy solution to the waste management problem, burn pits created a danger to the health of those who breathed the toxic fumes produced by hazardous waste such as tires, batteries, paint, and human waste. Although this was a common practice for many years, the military has stopped using burn pits.  

Researchers are still trying to learn about the long-term health effects of burn pit exposure to help veterans who are beginning to develop respiratory illnesses, cancers, and other diseases from toxic exposure. 

If you were exposed to burn pits during your deployment, you are encouraged to complete the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. This voluntary study gathers data from veterans who can give a first-hand account of conditions around military burn pits. Even those who aren’t experiencing symptoms now are encouraged to take the survey. Participants will also be alerted as new information about the long-term health effects of burn pit exposure becomes available.

How Does the VA Rate Asthma?

Is asthma a VA disability? It can be, but qualifying it as a service connected disability depends on several factors. To be eligible for VA disability benefits for asthma, you generally need to prove your service connection along with providing plenty of medical evidence of your diagnosis, symptoms, and how your asthma affects your daily life.

Asthma can be a challenging medical condition for VA benefits because it can be challenging to prove a connection to your service. It can also be a challenge to prove how severe your symptoms are, even if they prevent you from working or completing everyday tasks. Still, winning a veteran’s disability claim is possible with a significant amount of evidence of your condition. The VA rates asthma claims from 0% to 100% using the following information to determine the severity of your asthma:

  • How frequent your asthma attacks occur
  • How often you need medical intervention to prevent severe asthma attacks
  • How often you need to use asthma medication

The VA also considers two metrics that evaluate your breathing: Forced Expiratory Volume (FEV-1) and Forced Vital Capacity (FVC). FEV-1 measures how much air you can breathe out in one second forcefully, while FVC measures how much air you breathe out naturally after that second. The two metrics together give the VA a decent picture of your lung function.

For a 100% disability rating, you must either require daily corticosteroids or immunosuppressives, suffer from asthma attacks more than once per week, or show an FEV-1 or combined FEV-1/FVC result of less than 40% of non-asthma sufferers. You can qualify for a lower rating of 30% with an FEV-1 or joint FEV-1/FVC result of no more than 70% of non-asthma sufferers, you require non-inflammatory medicine, or you need daily bronchodilator therapy.

In asthma cases, it might be helpful for you to contact a veterans disability attorney to guide you through the process. Your attorney might suggest you go through an Independent Medical Examination to help you get a VA disability compensation approval.

How to Get VA Disability for Asthma

To get VA disability for asthma, you’ll need to follow the VA’s process for disability compensation. This entails filling out an application, submitting medical evidence for your claim, including statements from others to support your claim, and scheduling a VA examination, if required. The exam will help the VA learn more about your condition and symptoms to determine a fair rating, if any, for your asthma.

An asthma claim can be challenging for the VA to approve because its severity varies greatly between individuals. Having a current diagnosis, a medical doctor who’s willing to help you provide documents to support your claim, and a reliable link between your asthma and service, can help the VA approve your request for disability compensation.