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Diagnosing Emphysema and COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD, is actually a group of diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, specific types of bronchiectasis, and even severe asthma. Emphysema is most often caused over time by many years of smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke, environmental hazards, or other pollutants. Chronic bronchitis, another form of COPD, may also be a result of smoking or exposure, and often occurs earlier in life than emphysema does. Diagnosing emphysema or COPD properly is important for helping individuals find appropriate treatments to help manage their symptoms.

In order to diagnose a patient with emphysema or any type of COPD, a variety of tests may be conducted by a doctor, along with compiling a full medical history and providing a complete physical exam. The tests that are used to confirm an emphysema or COPD diagnosis may include one of more of the following:


Chest X-rays are usually the first test used to determine if a diagnosis of advanced emphysema or COPD is correct and to rule out some other potential causes of shortness of breath. A chest X-ray, however, may show normal findings even if a patient does have emphysema or COPD.

Computerized Tomography (CT)
These scans combine several different X-rays taken from different directions to create a composite cross-sectional view of the patient’s lungs. They can be useful for diagnosing emphysema or another type of COPD and to determine whether or not the individual is a possible candidate for lung surgery.

Blood & Lab Tests

Blood is usually taken from an artery located in the patient’s wrist and tested to find out how well the lungs are transferring oxygen into and removing carbon dioxide from the patient’s bloodstream using blood gas analysis. Lab tests may also be used to determine if the patient has a genetic disorder, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which may cause COPD, or to rule out other possible conditions.

Lung Function Tests

Noninvasive tests, such as a spirometer that the patient blows into, may be used to measure how much air the individual’s lungs are able to hold and how well that air is flowing in and out of their lungs. Some lung function tests can also measure lung volume, how well the lungs are delivering oxygen to the bloodstream, pulse oximetry, and diffusing capacity.


If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with emphysema or another form of COPD, you may be facing some major lifestyle changes and health concerns. Luckily, the expert staff of Specialty Care Services has many years of experience in helping patients and their families cope with emphysema and other types of COPD. Reach out to us today to learn more about our Bethesda home health care and services in the surrounding areas.

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