Unlocking the Diagnosis of COPD

Unlocking the Diagnosis of COPD

As COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a progressive condition, early diagnosis and treatment are key to help ensure the best possible outcomes. Therefore, if you experience persistent or recurrent breathing issues, ensure you seek medical help and get checked for COPD.

In general, the diagnosis of COPD includes several different assessments such as blood tests, pulse oximetry, spirometry, pulmonary function tests, imaging tests, and others. To learn more about the diagnosis of COPD, continue reading below.

Physical Examination

A detailed review of symptoms and medical history is the first step your medical team should take when you start your assessment. This is key for distinguishing COPD from other similar conditions including allergies or asthma. Then, a thorough examination should be performed which includes:

  • Vital signs – The doctor will measure your temperature, pulse, respiratory rate (the number of breaths per minute), and blood pressure.
  • Systemic examination – Your practitioner will look for signs of respiratory distress like struggling to breathe or loud wheezing by listening to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope.
  • Extremities examination – Signs of advanced COPD such as cyanosis or pulmonary hypertension can be seen on your extremities. So, doctors will check for pale or bluish fingers or toes and swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs.
  • Six-minute walk test – Ideally, you should do this test before and after getting treatment with a bronchodilator. If the distance you walk in six minutes increases after treatment, you might have COPD.

Labs and Tests

After finishing your physical examination, your doctors might order blood or breathing tests which provide them with an objective assessment of the function of your lings. Such tests include:

Breathing Tests:

  • Pulse oximetry – This is a non-invasive method of measuring the oxygen level (oxygen saturation) of the blood and how well your tissues are supplied with oxygen.
  • Pulmonary function tests (PFTs)
  • lung diffusion tests (to measure the amount of carbon monoxide your lungs can process)
  • body plethysmography (to assess the volume of air in the lungs at different stages of breathing and the total lung capacity)
  • spirometry (to measure forced vital capacity - FVC, forced expiratory volume in one second – FEV1, and the ratio of FEV1 to FVC)

Blood Tests

  • Complete blood count (CBC) – This test will show your healthcare provider whether you have an infection or not.
  • Arterial blood gas (ABG) –This test measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood to identify the body’s pH and sodium bicarbonate levels.
  • Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency screening – AAT deficiency is a genetic condition that can cause COPD. You must do this test as the treatment for AAT-caused COPD is different from the standard one.


Physical examination, blood tests, and breathing tests sometimes aren't enough for getting a COPD diagnosis. In such cases, some imaging tests might be required so that your doctor can evaluate the structure of your lungs. These tests include:

  • Chest X-ray – Although it doesn’t provide a diagnosis of COPD by itself, it shows lung changes linked with late-stage COPD such as lung hyperinflation, right-sided heart failure, and bullae.
  • Chest Computerized Tomography (CT) scan – To provide fine details that aren’t clear on a chest X-ray or to see the outline of specific lung abnormalities.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line, COPD is a potentially life-threatening condition if left untreated. Therefore, early diagnosis and treatment is crucial. If you suspect you might have COPD, ensure you seek medical help as soon as possible.