How COPD Is Diagnosed

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is one of the most predominate illnesses affecting people around the world. COPD refers to any respiratory disorder that blocks a person’s airfow and can refer to illnesses such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.


Identifying COPD

Most people become aware that they might be suffering from COPD when they experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing on a regular basis
  • A persistent cough
  • Wheezing, especially when performing exertions
  • Producing large amounts of sputum (phlegm) that can be white, yellow, clear, or green
  • A feeling that the chest area is “tight”
  • Excess mucus that fills the throat overnight
  • Loss of energy
  • Lips or fingernail beds becoming blueish
  • Bronchitis that doesn’t clear up after a few weeks

COPD symptoms often manifest themselves cyclically, where they occasionally seem to get better or almost disappear but then return and become worse for a while.

If you suspect that you might be suffering from COPD, consult with a physician to get a proper diagnosis.

Diagnosing COPD

When you visit your doctor, the first thing that he or she will do is get a detailed medical history from you. A number of other illnesses can manifest themselves with secondary effects that include breathing difficulties. Your doctor will also you about your lifestyle as a number of factors like smoking, your age, and occupation are known to contribute to the likelihood of developing COPD.

Your doctor will probably order a spirometry test, otherwise known as a lung function test. You will be asked to blow into a tube that will measure the volume of the air in your lungs. The spirometer (literally “breath meter”) can identify warning signs of COPD even before an individual has any symptoms.

Another common diagnostic test that your doctor may order is a chest X-ray. If the COPD is in the form of emphysema, the X-ray will identify blocked passages. A chest X-ray can also give your doctor more information about how your lungs and heart are functioning.

Your doctor may also order a CT (“cat”) scan. This imaging process will give your doctor a clear picture of how your lungs are functioning and help diagnose if you have emphysema. In more severe cases of COPD, the CT scan can be used to determine whether you will need surgery. CT scans are also often used to identify symptoms of lung cancer.

One other common test is known as an arterial blood gas analysis. A blood sample will be drawn and then examined to measure how much oxygen and carbon dioxide there is in your blood, a useful metric for identifying how well your lungs are functioning.

In some rare cases, your doctor may order a genetic analysis because it has been shown that approximately 1% of individuals with COPD have a genetic disorder that leads to lowered levels of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin.

Treating COPD

The good news is that almost all cases of COPD can be successfully treated. If you smoke or are exposed to airborne hazards as part of your job, stopping smoking and avoiding irritants will help your lungs begin to heal.

In other cases, medications may be prescribed. For cases of chronic bronchitis, you may be prescribed an inhaler containing a bronchodilator, a medicine that helps relax the muscles around your airway to help improve your ability to breathe. In some circumstances, you may be prescribed inhaled corticosteroids that work to minimize and calm the irritation in your airway. Some COPD patients will get a combined inhaler that contains both bronchodilators and steroids.