Diagnosing COPD

Your healthcare provider will use your past health history, a physical exam, and certain tests to diagnose COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Health history

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

  • History of current illness. Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Also tell him or her how long you have had them.

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

  • Family history. Report serious health problems in close family members. This is especially true of any lung problems.

  • Social and environmental history. The most important factor in COPD is if you smoke or have smoked in the past. You should also tell your provider if you have been around secondhand smoke, harmful chemicals, asbestos, or air pollution.

  • Functional assessment. Report if breathing gets in the way of your daily activities.

Physical exam

Healthcare provider listening to patient's lungs.

Your provider 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. These measure the flow of air into and out of your lungs. They also check 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). This test is important to help diagnose COPD. Sometimes you will get an inhaled medicine to see if your spirometry results improve.

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

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

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

  • CT scans. These imaging tests show detailed images of the lungs.

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