The process used to make a COPD diagnosis generally consists of gathering your medical history, performing a physical exam, and conducting certain breathing tests. Based on these tests, your doctor can determine if you have COPD and how severe it is. Tests used to rule out other causes of symptoms and to better confirm a COPD diagnosis include chest x-rays and bronchodilator reversibility testing.
In order to make a COPD diagnosis, the doctor will ask a number of questions about your medical history, perform a physical exam, and recommend certain breathing tests.
Medical History and Physical Exam
Your doctor will examine you and listen to your lungs. Your doctor may also ask you questions about your family and medical history and what lung irritants you may have been exposed to for long periods of time. Doctors will consider a COPD diagnosis if you have the typical symptoms and a history of exposure to lung irritants, especially cigarette smoking.
Your doctor will use a breathing test called spirometry to confirm a COPD diagnosis. This test is easy and painless and shows how well your lungs work. You breathe hard into a large hose connected to a machine called a spirometer. When you breathe out, the spirometer measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can blow air out of your lungs after taking a deep breath.
Spirometry is the most sensitive and commonly used test of lung function. It can detect COPD long before you have significant symptoms.
Based on this test, your doctor can determine if you have COPD and how severe it is.
(Click COPD Stages for more information on how doctors classify COPD.)