COPD: Tests and Diagnosis

Written by Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 1, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on June 19, 2014

COPD: Tests & Diagnosis

A diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is based on your signs and symptoms, history of exposure to lung irritants (such as smoking), and family history. Your doctor will need to do a complete physical examination. COPD symptoms can be slow to develop. Many of the symptoms are somewhat common. Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal breathing sounds and may order some or all of the following tests.


The most effective and common method for diagnosing COPD is spirometry. This easy, painless test measures lung function and capacity. The patient exhales as forcefully as possible into a tube connected to a small machine (spirometer). The results can be interpreted immediately. This test is most effective because it can determine COPD before significant symptoms appear. It can also help track the progression of COPD and monitor the effectiveness of treatment.

Blood Test

Blood tests can help determine if your symptoms are being caused by an infection.

An arterial blood gas test will measure the amount of oxygen in your blood. This is one indication of how well your lungs are working. This can help your doctor determine how severe your COPD is and whether you need oxygen therapy.

If you have symptomatic COPD and are less than 50 years old or if you are a nonsmoker with COPD, your doctor will probably check your levels of α1-antitrypsin, a protein that helps protect the lungs. This protein is produced by the liver and then released into the bloodstream. This test will help determine if there is a genetic cause for your illness. Another indication would be a family history of premature COPD.

Chest X-ray or CT Scan

A CT scan is a type of X-ray that creates a more detailed image than a standard X-ray. Whichever type your doctor chooses, an X-ray will give a picture of the structures inside your chest. These include your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Your doctor will be able to see if you have evidence of COPD. If your symptoms are being caused by another condition such as heart failure, your doctor will be able identify that as well.  

Sputum Examination

Your doctor may order a sputum examination, especially if you have a productive cough. Sputum is the mucus you cough up. Analyzing your sputum can help identify the cause of your breathing difficulties and may rule out some lung cancers. If you have a bacterial infection, it can be identified and treated.


Your doctor might request an ECG to determine if your shortness of breath is being caused by a heart condition. 

Was this article helpful? Yes No

Send us your feedback

Thank you.

Your message has been sent.

We're sorry, an error occurred.

We are unable to collect your feedback at this time. However, your feedback is important to us. Please try again later.

Show Sources



Trending Now

Beyond Back Pain: 5 Warning Signs of Ankylosing Spondylitis
Beyond Back Pain: 5 Warning Signs of Ankylosing Spondylitis
There are a number of potential causes of back pain, but one you might not know about is ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Find out five warning signs of AS in this slideshow.
Easy Ways to Conceal an Epinephrine Shot
Easy Ways to Conceal an Epinephrine Shot
Learn how to discreetly carry your epinephrine autoinjectors safely and discreetly. It’s easier than you think to keep your shots on hand when you’re on the go.
Common Asthma Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Common Asthma Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Learn about some of the most common triggers for asthma, as well as measures you can take to minimize your risk of exposure, symptoms, and flares.
Timeline of an Anaphylactic Reaction
Timeline of an Anaphylactic Reaction
From first exposure to life-threatening complications, learn how quickly an allergy attack can escalate and why it can become life threatening.
How to Evaluate Your Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Plan
How to Evaluate Your Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Plan
Every multiple sclerosis (MS) patient is different, and no single treatment plan works for everyone. Learn more about what to consider when evaluating your MS treatment plan.

Want information about COPD? Want to take action?
We want to help.

Take steps toward a healthier life, through the power of information. Sign up for Healthline's COPD newsletter and you'll receive:
  • the latest news updates in research and
    treatment options
  • tips and advice on how to ease your symptoms
    and aid in recovery
  • interactive content to give you one-of-a-kind
    insight into your condition

Thanks very much! You’ll receive a confirmation email soon!