None of the current methods used to diagnose COPD can detect the disease before irreversible lung damage has occurred. However, the earlier it is detected, the sooner steps can be taken to modify further damage. When you first see your doctor, he or she will ask about your symptoms and medical history and will perform a physical exam. The history and physical exam provide the most important information that is used for the diagnosis of COPD.
If your doctor suspects you might have COPD, you may undergo one or more of the following tests:
Pulmonary (Lung) Function Tests
Many tests of lung function have been developed, and each provides slightly different information about how well your lungs are working. Pulmonary function tests are painless, noninvasive tests that are performed using a machine called a spirometer. By breathing into the spirometer under certain conditions, the doctor can measure your lung volume and your ability to move air in and out of your lungs in a certain period of time. Your results are compared with typical findings of a healthy person your age and height, and the doctor can then determine to what extent your lung function is diminished. Sometimes, tests are repeated after you have been given a bronchodilator medication, to see if your results improve with this type of treatment.
Pulmonary function tests include:
This is the maximum volume of air that can be forcibly exhaled after inhaling as deeply as possible.
This is the amount of air that remains in the lungs when measuring vital capacity. In persons with COPD, RV is usually dramatically higher than normal because air is trapped in the damaged lung and cannot be exhaled normally.
This is the total amount of air the lungs are capable of holding and is the combination of FVC and RV.
This measures the volume of air that can be forcibly exhaled in one second and represents the rate of air movement out of the lungs. FEV1 typically declines a very small amount per year in normal persons, but the decline can be several times over the expected in people with COPD. A greater than expected annual fall in FEV1 is the most sensitive test for COPD and a reasonably good predictor of disability and early death.
This test provides an estimate of how efficiently the lungs can exchange gases with the blood. You take a breath of a known mixture of gases and see what percent is left over at exhalation.
A sensor on your finger is used to acquire quick, basic information about the amount of oxygen in your blood. More detailed measurements are provided by the blood test called an arterial blood gas.
Arterial blood gases determine the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. This test requires that a blood sample be removed from one of your arteries, usually in the wrist.
Collecting a sputum specimen (a sample of coughed-up mucus) for laboratory testing can reveal the presence of an infection that could be complicating COPD.
A chest X-ray provides a picture of the heart, lungs, bones, and soft tissues in the chest, as well as the blood vessels associated with them.
This test provides a detailed X-ray of the lungs and can be useful in assessing the extent of lung damage associated with COPD.
This blood test measures levels of alpha-1-antitrypsin, which is an important protein that helps protect the lungs from damage due to inflammation. Persons who develop COPD at an early age or who develop the disease but never smoked may have abnormally low levels of this protein due to a genetic defect. The substance can be replaced artificially by giving a medicine intravenously.
Although most cases of COPD are preventable, it cannot be cured. Once lung damage occurs, treatment focuses on preventing additional damage, reducing symptoms of the disease, and enhancing the quality of daily activities.
The disability from COPD can cause dramatic changes to your quality of life; treatment of its symptoms, prevention of complications, and progression of the disease require attention to a variety of behaviors. Because of these factors, some people seek out their treatment through a comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation program. These programs provide guidance and support as you learn to manage your COPD through medications, good nutrition, appropriate exercise, and good lifestyle choices. These programs work well for some people and may help optimize quality of life.
If you’re a smoker, the first and most important thing you should do is stop smoking. This will slow the progress of the disease and make it easier for you to breathe than if you continued to smoke. In addition, do your best to avoid the second-hand smoke of others and other lung irritants (e.g., air pollution, chemicals or dust) that can worsen your symptoms. Other preventive tips include:
- Losing weight, if necessary, as excess weight requires you to breath more to accomplish the same amount of physical activity
- Getting a flu shot and pneumococcal vaccine to reduce your risk of contracting the flu or pneumonia, respectively
- Seeking treatment for potential chest infections as early as possible, as COPD impairs your lungs’ defense mechanisms and causes infections to linger
- Using respiratory therapy devices (e.g., inhalers, nebulizers and oxygen) as instructed
As a COPD patient, your doctor may recommend you use any of the following types of medications:
- Bronchodilators: These medications open your airways by relaxing the surrounding muscles. They may be administered as pills, liquid or inhalers.
- Steroids: Inhaled steroids are used to help reduce airway inflammation and are typically administered to patients with moderate or severe COPD.
- These medications may be used on a trial basis for six weeks to three months so their effectiveness in alleviating breathing difficulties can be determined.
- Oxygen: Oxygen therapy is recommended to patients with severe COPD who are struggling with shortness of breath. This therapy will help to maintain appropriate oxygen levels in the blood, thereby prolonging your life, protecting your heart and other vital organs from damage, improving your sleep patterns at night and mental alertness during the day, and making it easier to complete activities of daily living.
Your physician may recommend that you participate in the Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. This coordinated program typically includes aspects such as education on COPD, disease management training (coping strategies), nutrition advice, exercise and counseling. A number of health care professionals—doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, exercise physiologists and dietitians—collaborate, as a team, to provide you with the comprehensive care you need.