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How is COPD diagnosed?
Your health care professional will ask if you have a cough, if you have a lot of sputum and if your breathlessness is brought on by anything. They’ll also ask how your daily life is affected and other questions about your general health.
They’ll ask if you’ve smoked and if you’ve been exposed to dust, fumes or chemicals.
To get an accurate diagnosis, you should have a simple test called spirometry. This involves blowing hard into a machine that measures the total amount of air you can breathe out, called your lung capacity, and also how quickly you can empty your lungs. The measure used is called the forced expiratory volume in one second, often shortened to FEV1. Healthy people can empty at least 70% of the air from their lungs in the first second of a hard blow out.
Spirometry only covers one aspect of your lung function. People with the same spirometry result may be more or less breathless depending on their level of fitness, any other medical problems and the exact way COPD has damaged their lungs.
Chest X-ray and blood test
For the vast majority of people, a firm diagnosis of COPD can only be confirmed by spirometry. It will not be made on a chest X-ray finding on its own. Your health care professional should arrange for you to have a chest X-ray and blood test to rule out other causes of your symptoms.
Your doctor will calculate your body mass index (BMI) to find out if you’re a healthy weight. This is important because you can deal with your COPD better if you’re not underweight or overweight.
Your health care professional may want to get a better picture of your condition and how it affects you, including:
- tests to find out how well your lungs are functioning
- tests to see if the oxygen level in your blood is significantly reduced
- asking how often you have symptom flare-ups or chest infections
- finding out how short of breath you feel during everyday activities
You may be referred to see a specialist doctor or a specialist nurse to confirm the diagnosis or to work out the right treatment for you.
You may also see other health care professionals who can help you to manage your condition:
- physiotherapists – to help you deal with your sputum, control your breathing and keep active
- dieticians – to help you manage your weight
- occupational therapists – to help make your daily living easier
- counsellors or talking therapists – to help your mental wellbeing
- smoking cessation advisors – if you smoke, to help you quit
Why it’s time for parliament to prioritise lung health
Penny talks about the importance of speaking out for better lung health in the UK.