If you are having COPD symptoms like getting short of breath, coughing that may bring up sputum (mucus or phlegm), or chest tightness, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider to see if your symptoms are because of COPD.
To diagnose COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, your healthcare provider will review your symptoms, ask for your complete health history, conduct a physical exam and look at test results.
After your first visit, your provider will determine your level of severity and create a treatment plan. At each follow up visit, you and your provider will talk about symptoms, risk for COPD flare ups or exacerbations, and make changes to your treatment plan as needed.
Health History and Physical Exam
Your healthcare provider will take a detailed health history and conduct a physical exam if your provider suspects you may have COPD. You will be asked for some medical history, which should include:
- Current or past smoking history
- Exposure to secondhand smoke; air pollution; prior history working with chemicals, dust or fumes; and a history of childhood respiratory infection
- History of exacerbations or flare ups including hospitalizations
- Symptoms such as shortness of breath, chronic cough, or coughing up mucus (sputum or phlegm)
- Family members diagnosed with COPD, alpha-1 deficiency or another chronic lung disease
- Impact of on how symptoms have changed your daily life. Include changes to your activities or missed work
- Times when symptoms get worse such as change of season, weather, or other triggers
- Other comorbidities like heart disease, osteoporosis, anxiety, or depression
Testing for COPD
There are breathing tests or lung function tests your healthcare provider may perform. These breathing tests can be done in your provider’s office while other tests may be done in a pulmonary function testing lab.
The most common lung function test is called spirometry. A spirometry test can diagnose COPD. A spirometer can measure the amount and speed of the air you blow out. This helps your healthcare provider see how well your lungs are working.
People diagnosed with COPD, regardless of age or ethnicity, should be tested for AAT deficiency. Your healthcare provider may order a screening blood test to check the level of alpha-1 antitrypsin in your body.
A chest X-ray cannot diagnose COPD but can exclude other conditions that have similar symptoms. Chest X-rays can also show changes in your lungs associated with COPD.
A CT scan may show the type of COPD like emphysema or chronic bronchitis, progression of the disease or severity.
Oximetry or ABG measures the oxygen level in your blood. This test can show how well your lungs move oxygen in the blood and remove carbon dioxide from your blood.
Other lung function tests your provider may recommend are a lung volume test, to measure the volume of air in the lungs including the air that remains at the end of a normal breath, a diffusing capacity test that shows how easily oxygen enters the blood stream or exercise testing like a 6-minute walk test may be used to evaluate shortness of breath during exercise.
Discussing a COPD Treatment Plan
If you are diagnosed with COPD, you and your healthcare provider will discuss a treatment plan which may include medication, attending pulmonary rehab, oxygen therapy, or palliative care.
Page last updated: April 28, 2023