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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - How do doctors diagnose COPD?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

To find out if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you will need to see your GP and possibly a hospital specialist. They will look at these things:

  • Whether you smoke

  • Whether you work with harmful gases or chemicals

  • Your symptoms

  • Your health now (you'll have a physical examination)

  • Your health in the past and any health problems in your family (this is your medical history)

  • Results from tests that measure how well your lungs work.

Seeing your GP

To find out if you are at high risk of having COPD, your GP will ask whether you smoke now or whether you did in the past. Nearly everyone who has COPD is a smoker or used to smoke. But some people have inhaled only second-hand smoke.

Information about where you work and what you do will help your doctor know how likely it is that you have this disease. Your GP will also ask about your symptoms and about any other illnesses you've had.

He or she will examine you and listen to your chest to see how well you are breathing and if you have any signs of a chest infection.

Here are some questions your GP may ask.

  • Do you cough every day? How often?

  • How long have you been coughing like this?

  • Do you cough up mucus (also called phlegm)? What does it look like?

  • Do you feel out of breath a lot? What makes you feel breathless?

  • Do you get a lot of chest infections?

  • Are you losing weight?

  • Does anyone in your family have chronic bronchitis? Emphysema? COPD? Any other breathing problem?

  • Have you had, or do you have, heart trouble or lung problems of any kind? Do you have any other illnesses?

  • Are your symptoms affecting your work, sleep, leisure, or other everyday activities?

To see how healthy your lungs are, you will need some of the tests listed below. Your GP may do some of them, or your GP may refer you to your local hospital for tests.

  • Spirometry: This helps to find out how well your lungs work by measuring how much air you can breathe in and out. To read more, see Spirometry. Your doctor will use it to find out if you have COPD and, if you do have it, how bad it is.

  • Walking test: This will measure how fast you get out of breath.

  • Chest x-ray: This will usually show whether you have (or don't have) any other lung diseases.

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) or echocardiogram ('echo'): These tests will tell the doctor if your heart is not beating or pumping properly and if this is making you breathless.

  • CT scan : Your doctor might want to use this test to get a more detailed picture of your lungs.

  • A blood test to measure blood gases: This shows how much oxygen and carbon dioxide you have in your blood. See Blood gases to find out more.

Last Updated: March 13, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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