How is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) diagnosed?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can usually be diagnosed when someone who smokes, has been a smoker, or has been exposed to other chemicals that can damage the lungs complains of a persistent cough with mucus. Tools used to diagnose COPD include a breathing test called spirometry, and sometimes a chest x-ray or blood tests.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often goes undiagnosed because it can present as a chronic productive cough or shortness of breath with exertion in the initial stages. Both are fairly common symptoms for people with asthma, allergies or deconditioning. COPD can go undiagnosed until severe shortness of breath presents in the later stages of the disease.

Dr. Audrey K. Chun, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

A survey carried out by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) suggests that many people at risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are still unaware of the disease. People with COPD often go undiagnosed because they wrongly assume their shortness of breath or other symptoms are the result of aging or being out of shape.

Doctors use a simple test called spirometry to diagnose chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The test involves blowing forcefully into a tube connected to a spirometer, which measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can exhale.

Shortness of breath, a chronic cough producing yellowish sputum and difficulty breathing are all symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you experience these symptoms and have a history of exposure to lung irritants, such as cigarette smoke, your doctor may recommend several tests to diagnose COPD. A spirometer can measure lung function and detect early-stage COPD. A chest x-ray may show over-inflation of the lungs, a condition characteristic of emphysema and late-stage COPD. Arterial blood gas analysis measures how well carbon dioxide is removed from the blood; high levels of carbon dioxide in the arteries occur in late-stage COPD. An analysis of your sputum can also eliminate other possible causes, such as lung cancer.

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