Diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
by Alayne Ronnenberg, ScD
There are no specific tests to confirm COPD. Instead, your doctor will use your symptoms, risk factors, and test results to determine if it is present. COPD cannot be found before irreversible lung damage has occurred. The earlier it is detected, the sooner steps can be taken to slow further damage.
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your history and physical exam will provide the most important information for the diagnosis of COPD. Other tests may be done to look for more signs of COPD and assess the changes to the lung. These tests can also show how impaired your breathing may be.
Pulmonary Function Tests
These function tests can show how well your lungs are working. There are a number of different test options. These tests are painless and non-invasive. You will be asked to breathe into a tube called a spirometer. It will measure how much air your lungs can hold. It will also measure your ability to move air in and out of your lungs in a certain period of time. Your results are compared with typical findings of a healthy person your age and similar height. All of this information will show how much your lung function has declined.
Tests may also be done after you have been given certain medication. This is to see if this type of treatment is effective for you.
Pulmonary function measures include:
Carbon Monoxide Diffusing Capacity
This test measures how well a gas can pass from your lungs and into your blood. You will be asked to breath in air containing a very small amount of carbon monoxide. When you breathe out, the carbon monoxide in your breath will be measured. Your doctor will look at the difference between amount of gas that was inhaled and the amount you exhaled. The missing gas will have been passed into your blood. This reflects how easily oxygen can get into your blood from your lungs.
A small clip will be placed on your finger. It can quickly show how much oxygen is in your blood.
COPD. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115557. Updated September 1, 2018. Accessed October 15, 2018.
How is COPD diagnosed? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) website. Available at:
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October 15, 2018.
Patient Education: Teaching the Patient with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at:
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Updated March 28, 2018. Accessed October 15, 2018.
Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, Weinberger SE, et al; Diagnosis and management of stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a clinical practice guideline update from the American College of Physicians, American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society, and European Respiratory Society. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155(3):179-191.
Last reviewed March 2018 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 3/30/2018
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