Can You Join The Military With Asthma?

Joining the military is a dream for many, but there are a number of health and fitness requirements that must be met before a recruit can enlist. These standards exist because of the serious and life-threatening situations in which servicemembers may find themselves.

Asthma is a condition that may affect your physical performance. Does that mean asthma will stand in the way of your goal to join the armed forces? In this article, we'll examine how each branch handles the condition and the options available to you.

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Joining the military with asthma

For many jobs in the military, top performance is vital to the mission’s success. Servicemembers routinely work in conditions that can exacerbate asthma, including humid and dusty areas and around solvents and other chemicals that may trigger an asthma attack. To assure the safety of everyone involved, the Department of Defense needs to be sure that a person assigned to a particular task will be ready and able to complete that task as required.

Because asthma can impede a person’s ability to perform at the same level consistently, it is a disqualifying condition in the Medical Standards for Military service¹, which applies to the entire military.

However, there’s an exception for those who had childhood asthma but haven’t had symptoms of or treatment for the condition after their 13th birthday. 

How can you join the military with asthma?

If you currently have asthma symptoms or are being treated for it, you won’t be able to join the military. However, if you’re symptom- and treatment-free, it may be possible to enlist. Depending on the job functions you'll perform and the specifics of your other qualifications, you may be eligible for a medical waiver. 

Obtaining a medical waiver for military service

Each branch of the service has different requirements for getting a medical waiver. If you're currently being treated for asthma, you won't be eligible for a medical waiver from any branch. However, if you've had asthma past the age of 13 but are no longer being treated for the condition, you may be eligible for a waiver.

We'll look at the specific requirements of each branch below.

Regardless of which military branch you’re interested in joining, you'll need to provide documentation showing your condition is well-tolerated, be in good cardiovascular shape, and pass a pulmonary function test.

Pulmonary function test (PFT)

To qualify for a medical waiver, you'll need to prove to the reviewing officer that you are not suffering any ill effects from your asthma. To prove yourself, you'll need to achieve satisfactory results in one or more pulmonary function tests² (PFT).

This category of tests is designed to measure how well your lungs are working. Some tests used to check for respiratory function include:

  • Spirometry³: You’ll breathe through a device called a spirometer. The device measures how much air you can breathe in and out and how fast. Spirometry is one of the most common tests for asthma.

  • Fractional exhaled nitric oxide test⁴: Someone with asthma has inflamed airways that produce nitric oxide. A fractional exhaled nitric oxide test, also called a FeNO test, measures the amount of nitric oxide in your breath to assess inflammation.

  • Provocation tests⁵: During these tests, the medical examiner will try to induce a mild asthmatic reaction under controlled conditions. These tests won’t trigger symptoms if your asthma isn’t an issue.

Does any military branch accept recruits with asthma?

No military branch will accept recruits that have active asthma that may affect their ability to perform their duties. However, each branch has different requirements for what’s acceptable.

The team at Operation Military Kids⁶ (an organization that works with writers with military experience to produce content for children interested in the military) interviewed recruiters from each major military branch. Here's what they had to say:

Army

“If you develop asthma while serving in the Army, the soldier will be sent to the doctor for a full checkup. A PFT will be conducted, and the doctor would make a recommendation to the Army as to your status.” — Sergeant Hewitt, an Army recruiter stationed out of Atlanta, GA

Anyone not currently being treated for or experiencing asthma symptoms is eligible to join the Army (as long as they aren’t excluded for any other reason). However, if you've had asthma at any time after turning 13, you'll need to pass a pulmonary function test and prove that you're fit for duty.

Being diagnosed with asthma after you've been accepted into the Army won't necessarily lead to discharge. Instead, you'll be referred to an army doctor who will evaluate your fitness to continue serving. 

Navy

“It’s definitely possible to get in the Navy if you were previously diagnosed, but it can be very difficult. For starters, if you currently have asthma, it’s not going to work out. The military has a very strict policy on this; if you are currently being treated for asthma, then you will not be able to serve. In addition, any history of asthma after the age of 13 will require a waiver.” — Officer Mendoza, a Navy recruiter stationed in Atlanta, Georgia

Like other branches of the service, anyone currently being treated for asthma is not eligible to join the Navy. A medical waiver is possible for those with asthma symptoms or treatments after their 13th birthday. To qualify for a waiver, an aspiring recruit must pass the pulmonary function test to show that their asthma won’t affect their performance in the Navy.

Air Force

“With the Air Force, asthma is disqualifying if the service person carries an inhaler. 

If they had childhood asthma but currently do not carry an inhaler it is possible to join the Air Force. ” — Staff Sergeant Socha, an Air Force recruiter stationed in Staunton, Virginia

People with a history of asthma interested in joining the Air Force will need to achieve satisfactory results in a methacholine challenge test to receive a medical waiver.

The methacholine challenge test is a type of provocation test where the participant inhales methacholine, a chemical that tightens the airways, and then breathes into a spirometer. People with asthma are more affected than people without it. 

Marines

“With the Marines, one needs to take a pulmonary function test. The potential recruit goes to see a Navy medical doctor then the medical board. There are specific jobs one cannot do if they have asthma.” — Captain Sabia, a Marine Corps recruiter stationed in Norcross, Georgia

As part of the Navy, the Marine Corps has the same requirements. Would-be recruits with a history of asthma must pass a pulmonary fitness test to be eligible, and no recruit currently being treated for asthma may join. 

Coast Guard

“With the Coast Guard, if you’re taking any asthma medications, it is a disqualifier.

In the Coast Guard, the service person must have [a] spirometer test, and the recruit must get [a] doctor’s consultation.” — Petty Officer Devoir, a Coast Guard recruiter stationed in Sandy Springs, Georgia

The Coast Guard typically disqualifies anyone who is currently taking asthma medicine. Those who aren't must pass a spirometer test to show their fitness for duty. 

What are the military rules for recruits with asthma?

A recruit may be diagnosed with asthma after they've joined the military. If this happens to you, it doesn't automatically mean that you'll be discharged from the service. After your basic training, there are certain jobs people with asthma can perform without putting anyone at risk.

You’ll need an assessment through the Medical Examination Board (MEB) to determine the severity of your condition and whether or not reasonable accommodations can be made for you. Each branch sets its rules, but they'll be comparable to the Army's rules for medical retention.

What can you do in the military with asthma?

All recruits must go through basic training. The intensity of this process is not suitable for many people with asthma, which is one of the reasons asthma is a disqualifying condition. Those who develop asthma after completing basic training may have their duties limited based on a rating system known as PULHES⁷.

The PULHES rating helps determine what specific accommodations are necessary for you to continue duty. If you are capable of being deployed, your PULHES number may disqualify you from serving in certain theaters.

The lowdown

In many cases, asthma can be a disqualifier for military service. However, if you can demonstrate that your condition doesn’t affect your ability to perform required duties, you may be eligible to enlist with a medical waiver. The specifics of what qualifies you for a waiver and what jobs you may perform can vary from branch to branch, so if one branch turns you down, it’s not necessarily the end of the road.

If you’re determined to join the, a recruiter who understands the ins and outs of the military may be able to help you find a path to enlistment.

  1. DoDI 6130.03, volume 1, medical standards for military service: Appointment, enlistment, or induction (2018)

  2. Pulmonary function tests | NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

  3. Spirometry | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

  4. FeNO tests to monitor FeNO levels | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

  5. Provocation (trigger) tests | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

  6. Can you join the military with asthma? | Operation Military Kids

  7. Managing the health of the force: A primer for company leaders | U.S. Army

Other sources:

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