How Is Copd Diagnosed 


COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and refers to the group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. More specifically it includes both chronic bronchitis, a long-term inflammation of the airways, and emphysema, damage to the air sacs in the lungs (1). 

COPD is most common in middle-aged people and people who have a history of smoking. However, many people won’t even realize they have it. The symptoms tend to get gradually worse over time and slowly limit a person's ability to partake in normal activities. Although, with treatment, it is possible to manage the symptoms. 

In this article, we will take a look at the symptoms of COPD, and most importantly, how COPD can be diagnosed. 



The main symptoms of COPD are:2 

  • Breathlessness
  • A persistent chesty cough
  • Persistent wheezing
  • Frequent chest infections. 

Furthermore, COPD can often be associated with other symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain, and weight loss, among others. These symptoms can get worse over time, especially if treatment is not sought out. Similarly, there can be periods of time when symptoms are worse than at other times. 

Risk factors

The most common risk factor for COPD is smoking. Long-term smoking puts people at an increased risk of developing COPD. In fact, according to the American Lung Association about 8 to 90% of cases of COPD are caused by cigarette smoking. This is because when a cigarette burns thousands of harmful chemicals are released. These chemicals and toxins weaken your lungs, causing swelling in the air tubes, and narrowing air passages and making it harder for them to fight against infections. All of these contribute to the symptoms of COPD.4

Another risk factor often associated with COPD is the people’s environment, as in the air that people breathe in daily, at home, and at work. For example, long-term exposure to air pollution or secondhand smoke can increase the risk of developing COPD. 

Diagnosing copd


Spirometry is a fairly simple test that can be used to help diagnose and monitor the symptoms of COPD and other lung conditions by measuring lung function and how much air you can breathe out in one forced breath. A spirometry test is carried out using a device called a spirometer - a small machine attached  to a mouthpiece into which you are asked to breathe. Spirometry can be extremely effective as it can help detect COPD, especially in smokers, even if symptoms are not significant.5 

Chest X-Ray and blood test

In most cases, COPD will be able to be diagnosed with a spirometry test. However, your doctor will also likely recommend a blood test and chest x-ray to confirm results and rule out any other causes of your symptoms. 

Bmi calculation

Commonly, your doctor will calculate your body mass index (BMI). This will be to find out whether you are a healthy weight. Your doctor will check your weight to advise you about lifestyle changes and treatment plans for managing COPD. Being a healthy weight significantly helps manage symptoms of COPD as opposed to if you’re underweight or overweight.

Arterial blood gas analysis

An arterial blood gas analysis (ABG) is a blood test that measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood. For an ABG analysis to be performed a sample is taken from an artery in your body. This test also checks the pH balance in your blood. This test is insightful because your body tightly regulates the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. When a healthcare professional interprets the results from arterial blood gas analysis he will be able to ascertain whether the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide are abnormal or not and shows well your lungs can move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide from your blood. If the results are abnormal this could point to conditions affecting your respiratory system, such as COPD.6

Genetic testing

In some cases, COPD is related to a rare genetic condition called alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, or alpha-1 for short (3). This is often referred to as genetic COPD and is caused by a deficiency in the alpha-1 which plays a critical role in protecting the lungs. Therefore, having a deficiency in this protein can leave your lungs more vulnerable than those who do not have the deficiency. 

Common misdiagnoses

In some cases COPD can be misdiagnosed. Some of the common misdiagnoses associated with COPD include the following: 

  • Acute bronchitis - refers to a temporary inflammation of the airways that causes a cough and mucus. This causes the same symptoms are COPD but the symptoms do not last as long. 
  • Asthma - sometimes asthma is mistaken for COPD as they both have similar symptoms, such as chronic coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. However, they are two distinct conditions. 

Importance of an early diagnosis

It is important to seek a COPD diagnosis as soon as you start noticing symptoms. Unfortunately, damage to the lungs cannot be reversed. A delayed diagnosis can lead to delayed treatment and smoking cessation. On the other hand, an early diagnosis of  COPD can encourage patients to quit smoking therefore giving medical professionals a chance to start the patients on treatments that are most effective and will work better compared to later or more severe stages. The earlier the diagnosis the better the chance of making a real difference in the patient’s life.


COPD refers to a group of long-term lung conditions that make it hard to breathe. There are several ways to diagnose COPD but most commonly your doctor will be able to diagnose COPD with a spirometry test and by observing the symptoms that you are experiencing. If you are diagnosed with COPD it is important to remember that your doctor will create the best treatment plan for you. This may involve physiotherapists to help you control your breathing, dietitians to help you manage your weight, occupational therapists to help your day-to-day easier, and counselors to help with your mental well-being. Most importantly, if you smoke, quitting smoking will be the most helpful and effective way to minimize and manage your symptoms. 


  1. Devine JF. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: an overview. Am Health Drug Benefits. 2008;1(7):34-42.
  2. Miravitlles M, Ribera A. Understanding the impact of symptoms on the burden of COPD. Respir Res. 2017;18(1):67. Published 2017 Apr 21.
  3. Anzueto A. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency-Associated Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: A Family Perspective. COPD: Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. 2014;12(4):462-467.
  4. Laniado-Laborín R. Smoking and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Parallel epidemics of the 21 century. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009;6(1):209-224.
  5. Johns DP, Walters JA, Walters EH. Diagnosis and early detection of COPD using spirometry. J Thorac Dis. 2014;6(11):1557-1569.
  6. Cukic V. The changes of arterial blood gases in COPD during four-year period. Med Arch. 2014;68(1):14-18. 
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Imogen Scott

Postgraduate Degree, Neuroscience, Goldsmiths, University of London

Imogen Scott, based in London, is deeply rooted in mental health and healthcare. Serving as an Account Executive at Silver Buck, she emphasizes digital health innovations. Previously, she showcased her commitment as a Medical Writer Intern at Klarity and supported students with special needs at Charlton Park Academy. With a Bachelor's in Psychology and an ongoing Neuroscience postgrad from Goldsmiths, Imogen is a blend of academic and professional passion in health.

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