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COPD Diagnosis & Tests

Doctor's X-ray looking for COPD symptomsThere are a number of factors that doctors rely on to diagnose COPD in patients. This diagnosis depends on the medical and family history of the patient, the signs and symptoms of COPD that they are experiencing, and test results. Primarily doctors will want to learn about the patient’s history with smoking, or if they weren’t a smoker, did they have any prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke.

Also, current COPD clinical research has shown that there is a connection between this disease and significant exposure to other lung irritants such as air pollution, dust, or chemical fumes. Despite the seriousness of this disease worldwide, clinical studies on COPD suggest that it is still critically under diagnosed. However, there are treatments available for people with COPD and drugs which can help keep this respiratory disease in check.

(If you are living with this respiratory disease, you might qualify for our COPD clinical trial in Birmingham, AL.)

When to Go See the Doctor

If you have been finding it increasingly harder to breathe or that you just can’t seem to get enough air, it is strongly advised that you go see a doctor as soon as possible. These tend to be some of the primary signs of COPD in most cases. Also, if you have been experiencing a persistent cough that has been producing a lot mucus or sputum, it is a good idea to go see a doctor. Your doctor will first ask you about how long you have been experiencing these symptoms and may also ask a few questions about your family’s medical history. During the examination, the doctor will take extra care to listen for any wheezing or any other abnormal sounds from the chest. After the physical and family history evaluation, doctors may then order one or more of the following tests in order to make an accurate diagnosis of COPD.

Pulmonary Function Tests

Also referred to as lung function tests, these are the best available diagnostic tests for COPD. These tests will effectively measure the amount of air in the patient’s lungs, as well as the speed at which the air is moving in and out of the lungs. The most important of these pulmonary function tests is spirometry. This test has also become the most commonly used and is often referred to as the gold standard test for respiratory patients.

Spirometry: This test can be used to effectively diagnose COPD early, since it measures airway obstruction and can detect COPD even before there are any symptoms. This is a painless test which measures the volume of air and the force by which is forced from the patient’s lungs. The patient will be asked to take a really deep breath and then blow into tube as hard as they can. This large tube is connected to the spirometer which measures the force of the patient’s exhale. This process is repeated several times in order to get an accurate all around measurement. From these results, doctors are able to establish two very important values: the forced vital capacity and the forced expiratory volume in one second.

Forced Vital Capacity (FVC): This value represents the maximum amount of air that an individual is able to exhale with force. Doctors can use this value to determine lung size, elasticity, and how well the air passages are opening and closing.

Forced Expiratory Volume in One Second (FEV1): If the patient’s outflow during forced exhalation starts low and stays low over the course of 1 second, then their airflow is considered to be limited or obstructed. Patients who have been diagnosed with COPD will see their FEV1 decline as the disease progresses. Patients with a moderate case of COPD will have an FEV1 which is 50-80% of what is predicted. Severe COPD patients have an FEV1 which is 30-50% of what is predicted.

Imaging Tests

Chest X-ray: In some cases of COPD, an x-ray of the chest will be able to show the presence of emphysema. In a majority of cases, emphysema is one of the main components of COPD. This x-ray also serves as an effective means of ruling out any other potential problems with the lungs, such as heart failure or lung cancer.

Computerized Tomography (CT): The CT scan will take multiple x-rays, which are taken from different angles, and combine them in order to relay a highly detailed, cross section image of the internal organs. This CT scan can help doctors establish if the patient has emphysema, and if surgery is a viable option to help their COPD.

Lab Tests to Measure the Lungs Ability to Exchange Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide

Arterial Blood Gas Analysis: COPD can limit the amount of oxygen that is in the patient’s blood stream. So some doctors may perform an arterial blood gas analysis in order to determine the blood’s saturation, or the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that is the patient’s blood. The blood used in this analysis will most often be drawn from an artery. It effectively measures how well a patient’s lungs are bringing in oxygen for the blood and abstracting the carbon dioxide.

Sputum Analysis: This has recently emerged as an effective clinical tool for diagnosing obstructive airway diseases like COPD. Clinical studies have proven the safety of this test, and it has proven to be superior to previous tests of airway inflammation. Medical personnel will take a sample of cells from the sputum, the mucus that COPD patients cough up, and analyze these cells. The results can be used to identify the cause of the patient’s lung problems, as well as help to rule out some lung cancers. Some recent clinical studies have shown that routine analysis of sputum samples can help to reduce the occurrence of exacerbations.