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Diagnosing COPD

Past medical history, physical exam, and diagnostic tests are all used to diagnose COPD.

Doctor looking at X-ray.

Medical history

Your health care provider learns about your medical history by asking questions. Topics include:

  • History of present illness. Tell your health care provider about your symptoms and how long you have had them.

  • Past medical and surgical history. Share other health problems and surgery you have had.

  • Family history. Report serious health problems in close family members, especially any lung problems.

  • Social and environmental history. The most important factor in COPD is whether you smoke or have smoked in the past. Exposure to second hand smoke, harmful chemicals, or air pollution should also be noted.

  • Functional assessment. Report whether breathing interferes with your daily activities.

Physical exam

Your provide will examine you. He or she will check your heart and lungs with a stethoscope. The focus will be on your airways including your nose and throat.

 Diagnostic tests

  • Pulmonary function tests measure the flow of air into and out of your lungs, and how much air your lungs can hold. The most common pulmonary function test is spirometry. This measures how fast and how much air you can blow out (exhale). Spirometry results are important in the diagnosis of COPD.

  • 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 provide detailed images of the lungs.

Online Medical Reviewer: Akin, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Date Last Reviewed: 6/18/2014
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