6.6% of adults living in the United States have reported that a physician has diagnosed them with COPD. This amounts to 16.4 million adults with COPD in the United States.
If you believe that you may have COPD, you aren’t alone. In fact, there is a consistent flow of new data coming from research institutions across the world.
But, how do you diagnose COPD? Where can you go if you believe that you may be one of these 16.4 million patients?
To learn the answers to these and other related questions, keep reading. We have everything you need to know.
What Is COPD?
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a lung condition that causes chronic inflammation in the lungs. This leads to decreased airflow in the lungs due to obstruction from the inflammation.
The exact cause of COPD is heavily debated, but most researchers believe that the condition comes about from repeated exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter. To be more specific, habits like smoking and conditions like asthma can cause the development of COPD.
The disease progresses over time, causing increased difficulty with breathing. Perpetuity of these issues can lead to other conditions like lung cancer and heart disease.
Often, patients aren’t diagnosed with the condition until they’re in advanced stages. However, there are some signs and symptoms that you can look out for early on in your COPD journey:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing during physical activity
- Chest tightness
- Chronic coughing
- Sputum production
- Persistent respiratory infections
- Chronic fatigue
- Weight loss
- Swelling in legs, ankles, and/or feet
You may also find that you experience symptoms during an exacerbation. This is an episode where the inflammation in the lungs worsens for a short period of time, making symptoms more severe than they normally are.
How Do You Diagnose COPD?
Unfortunately, COPD is commonly misdiagnosed. And, as we mentioned earlier, patients with COPD may not be diagnosed until later in the disease progression.
When you present to your general physician with your complaints/symptoms, he/she may refer you to a pulmonologist or attempt to diagnose the condition themselves. His/her decision will depend on the severity of the symptoms and his/her level of immediate concern.
The physician may ask about your past medical history and family history along with the signs and symptoms you’re currently seeing and experiencing. The physician may also ask if you’re aware of any lung irritants that could be causing the inflammation. More specifically, he/she will ask if you have a history of asthma or have been smoking.
To be clear, asthma and COPD are different conditions. However, some patients with asthma have developed COPD in later years.
If he/she is interested in researching your complaints further, he/she may decide to run a test or a series of tests to diagnose the condition. These may include the following:
- Chest x-ray
- Pulmonary function test
- CT scan
- Arterial blood gas
- Laboratory tests
Let’s learn more.
Likely, you’re familiar with x-rays. These are the films that physicians use to diagnose broken bones. And, they can also use them to diagnose COPD.
More specifically, the chest x-ray can help your physician see whether or not you’re suffering from emphysema. This is a condition that causes the air sacs in your lungs to burst due to weak walls. When several air sacs burst, this causes large bubbles in your lungs rather than the small sacs that were once there.
It is one of the leading causes of COPD. Therefore, physicians look for this condition while they’re trying to diagnose COPD.
It’s also important to note that a chest x-ray can help physicians rule out other lung conditions that could be causing your symptoms. It can also rule out heart failure.
CTs are another common scanning technique that physicians use to diagnose conditions all around the body. Physicians may request a CT to check for emphysema as well as lung cancer.
Physicians may use blood tests and arterial blood gas tests as well.
Blood tests can help the physician rule out other conditions. For example, he/she may want to make sure that you don’t have an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. This is a common genetic cause of COPD and could be a concern if you have a family history of the disease and/or develop it at a young age.
The arterial blood gas measures how progressed your condition is. It tells physicians how much oxygen and carbon dioxide your lungs are bringing in and out.
Pulmonary Function Tests
Your physician may use pulmonary (lung) function tests to determine how much air you can inhale and exhale. This also helps him/her determine whether or not you’re taking in enough oxygen.
Your physician may conduct tests like this while you’re sitting, standing, and moving.
How Is COPD Treated?
There is a wide range of COPD treatments that include lifestyle changes and medications.
The most common lifestyle change is quitting smoking. If you’re currently smoking and complaining of shortness of breath, quitting is the best thing to do. Your lungs may not go back to the way they were before, but you can reverse much of the damage and stop future damage.
Your physician may also recommend that you use oxygen at home to help with your symptoms. Alternatively, they may recommend the pulmonary rehabilitation path.
Your physician may also decide to prescribe medications that can help individuals with COPD breathe easier and absorb more oxygen into their system.
Getting Your COPD Medication
If a physician has diagnosed you with COPD and you have a prescription for COPD medication, you can fill your order here. It’s important to take your medication as your physician has directed you to.
As you’re taking your medication, you should implement lifestyle changes as your physician has recommended. By combining lifestyle changes and medication, you may be able to elongate your life and improve your quality of life.
COPD does not have to define you. With the help of your doctor, you have the ability to take your lung health back.