COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

Diagnosing COPD

Your doctor will ask if your breathlessness is brought on by anything, 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.

Your doctor can check how well your lungs work by arranging a simple test called spirometry. This involves blowing hard into a machine which measures your lung capacity and how quickly you can empty your lungs. This is called the forced expiratory volume in one second, often shortened to FEV1.

Your doctor will use spirometry to measure how narrow your airways are. But this only covers one aspect. Someone with slightly narrowed airways can be more breathless than someone with very narrow airways depending on their level of fitness and the exact way COPD has damaged their lungs.

Other tests for COPD

Your doctor should arrange for you to have a blood test and a chest X-ray 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 for your height. This is important because you can deal with your COPD better if you’re not underweight or overweight.

You may do more tests to give a better picture of your condition, covering:

  • how well your lungs are functioning
  • how often you have symptom flare-ups or chest infections
  • how short of breath you feel during everyday activities
  • whether your oxygen level is significantly lower

Who will I see?

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

Next: Treatments for COPD >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2016. Due for review: September 2019

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.