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Diagnosis of COPD

Shortness of breath may have prompted you to see the doctor. In many cases, though, COPD progresses for years without obvious symptoms. To diagnose COPD, a medical evaluation and tests must be done. Once your doctor suspects COPD, breathing tests are done to learn the extent of the problem.

Doctor looking at X-ray.

Your evaluation

Your evaluation starts with the following. These help your doctor make a diagnosis.

  • A health history will be taken. You’ll be asked about your lifestyle and smoking habits. You’ll also be asked about your symptoms, medical history, and any family history of lung disease.

  • An exam will be done. This involves a complete physical evaluation. Your doctor will listen to your heart and lungs. Your nose and throat will be examined. The size of your chest will also be evaluated. This helps show if the lungs are enlarged.

  • Tests may be ordered to find out more about your lungs.

 Tests you may have

  • Pulmonary function tests measure the flow of air into and out of your lungs, and the volume of air your lungs can hold. The most common pulmonary function test is spirometry. This measures how fast you can exhale (flow), and how much air you can blow out (volume). First, you breathe in as deeply as you can. Then, you exhale hard into a special instrument called a spirometer. This is connected to a computer that measures the air you breathed out.

  • Pulse oximetry shows how much oxygen is in your blood (oxygen saturation). This may be done at rest, as well as during and after exercise.

  • Arterial blood gas tests measure levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.

  • Chest X-rays show the size and shape of your lungs. They can also show certain problems in the lungs.

  • CT (computed tomography) scans produce images of the lungs that are more detailed than X-rays.

Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 3/12/2013
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.