How Do I Know If I Have COPD?

Finding out whether you have COPD can take several steps. This includes talking with your doctor and getting tests, many of which are straightforward and painless.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease makes it harder to breathe by damaging the airways in your lungs.

Emphysema (which damages air sacs in your lungs) and chronic bronchitis (ongoing inflammation in the tubes that bring air to your lungs), are diseases that fall under COPD.

Getting a Diagnosis

First, your doctor will want to know your medical history, your symptoms and how long you’ve had them.

Symptoms for COPD may include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • hard time breathing
  • tightness in your chest
  • lots of mucus (the slimy fluid you see in your cough up out of your lungs).

COPD is not curable, but it’s important to get treatments for your symptoms and slow the progress of the disease.

The symptoms usually get worse over time. You may notice that you’re getting short of breath when you’re doing an activity you used to do without any problems, such as walking or cooking.

The disease usually develops gradually, so you might see these symptoms creep up slowly. COPD usually gets diagnosed in people 40 and older.

After talking to your doctor about your symptoms, she may ask whether you smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. You may also be asked whether you’ve had contact with fumes, pollution, or dust, because they are known to irritate your lungs.

Tell your doctor if you have a family history of COPD.

Types of Tests for COPD

There are several diseases that often get mistaken for COPD. They include bronchiectasis, in which your airways get larger, and asthma. Also, smokers may get rare lung diseases that can be confused for COPD.

So your doctor may recommend several tests to get the right diagnosis. They might include:

Stethoscope. You may see your doctor wearing one around her neck. She will place the instrument on your chest to listen for anything unusual such as wheezing. Based on what she hears, she may recommend more tests.

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Spirometry. This tests the amount of air you can breathe in and out. It’s the most common lung function test and considered the best way to diagnose COPD. It’s simple and painless. You will be asked to take a deep breath, and you’ll blow hard into a mouthpiece that’s connected to a small machine. That machine, called the spirometer, measures how fast you blow air out of your lungs.

Results can tell you whether you have COPD, even if you haven’t gotten symptoms yet. It can also indicate whether you have another health issue, such as asthma or heart failure.

Chest X-ray. This creates an image of your chest, including your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. This shows whether there are problems in the lungs, including other diseases such as pneumonia, cancer, and heart failure (when your heart can’t pump enough blood).

Chest CT scan. This also creates an image of your chest, although it has more details than a chest X-ray. This test is also painless, although a dye may be injected into a vein in your arm to get clearer images of your chest.

You will lie on a table that moves into a CT scanner, which is shaped like a tunnel. You’ll hear clicks and various sounds as the scanner moves around you to take pictures. The entire scan takes about 30 minutes.

Arterial blood gas test. This measures how much oxygen and carbon dioxide you have flowing in your blood. You will get blood drawn so a lab can analyze it.

If you’re not getting enough oxygen into your bloodstream, it could be a sign that you have COPD or other lung diseases.

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency Testing. This tests for a protein called AAT, which is found in your lungs and blood.

The protein helps protect your lungs from diseases such as COPD. But some people don’t make enough AAT because they inherited a genetic mutation. People who lack AAT are more likely to get lung diseases earlier than usual, at around 30 to 40 years old.

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This genetic mutation is rare. Your doctor may suggest you get this test if your family has a history of AAT deficiency.

For the test, a small sample of blood is taken from one of your veins, and it is then checked for levels of AAT.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on November 20, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institutes of Health Senior Health: “COPD.”

Mayo Clinic: “Emphysema,” “Bronchitis.”

NIH. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Explore COPD,” “What Is Heart Failure?”  “Explore Chest CT Scan.”

World Health Organization: “Diagnosis of COPD.”

University of California San Diego Health: “Diagnosing COPD.”

COPD Foundation: “Testing and Diagnosis.”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Arterial Blood Gas.”

University of Michigan Health System: “Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency Testing”

National Health Service, U.K.: “Bronchiectasis.”

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