*Please note: This slide show represents a visual interpretation and is not intended to provide, nor substitute as, medical and/or clinical advice.

Early detection of COPD is essential for those who may be at risk. Once the disease is diagnosed, treatment can be started which can slow down or help prevent further damage from occurring to the lungs.

An ongoing cough with mucus production is often an early sign of COPD. Daily coughing is not normal and could be the sign of serious lung conditions. Individuals who have a history of smoking or repeated exposure to lung irritants should ask their healthcare professional for a breathing test called spirometry to determine if the symptoms they are experiencing are due to COPD.

The earlier COPD is diagnosed the better for patient outcomes. Once COPD is identified there are effective medications that can help patients do more and can help lower the chances of having COPD flares (or acute exacerbations of COPD).

If prevented from progressing, patients with a mild stage of COPD can live a fairly normal life.

Patients with moderate to severe stages of COPD have a greater risk to their health and worse outcomes than those who are diagnosed with milder forms of the disease.

In mild cases of COPD, respiratory symptoms may not be recognized or may not be very troublesome. These individuals may be unaware they have COPD, because people may mistakenly think that their cough is just a “smoker’s cough”. The fact is, there is no such thing as a “normal” smoker’s cough.

Others with COPD may feel tired and experience uncomfortable breathing with activities, so they stop being as active. These feelings of fatigue and trouble with activities may be due to COPD.

If an early diagnosis is confirmed, patients will be able to receive the appropriate medical care to reduce the progression of the disease and its symptoms.

Take a look at these patients. Can you tell which ones (if any) have COPD?

Many people, even many healthcare professionals, believe that you can tell who has COPD based on their symptoms, risk factors, physical examination, and appearance. But this is a myth!

The reality is that a breathing test (or lung function test) called spirometry is required to diagnose anyone with COPD.

There are many other conditions that can be confused with COPD. People who have trouble breathing and a cough may have COPD, but they may have other conditions like heart failure, scarring of the lungs called fibrosis, asthma, or other breathing problems instead of COPD.

This is why it is essential for you to get a breathing test, called spirometry to be sure that your symptoms are due to COPD and not because of another condition.

Based on your symptoms, your exposures to smoke and other lung irritants, and your medical history, your healthcare provider may order a breathing test, called spirometry.

Spirometry may also be called a lung function test or a pulmonary function test.

To make sure that your breathing problems are because of COPD, your clinician must order the lung function test, called spirometry. During spirometry, you will be asked to take a deep breath and then exhale as hard and as fast as you can into a tube that is connected to a machine, called a spirometer.

This test measures how much air you can breathe out, and how fast you blow air out. This test is simple, quick, painless, and accurate. Spirometry can predict COPD before symptoms are noticed or recognized.

How fast air exits the lungs within the first second is called the Forced Expiratory Volume (or FEV-1), and indicates how well your lungs work or function.

The spirometer allows your healthcare provider to compare your results against healthy individuals of similar age, height, gender, and ethnicity.

In patients who already have COPD, spirometry is helpful to monitor changes in lung function, especially if done a month or two after an exacerbation, COPD “flare”, or a “lung attack” – also called an acute exacerbation of COPD.

Some people get a “cold” or “bronchitis” that lasts for several days or even weeks. These episodes may actually be “lung attacks” or COPD flares, which are also called “acute exacerbations” of COPD.

These respiratory illnesses may be the first sign that someone has COPD. So people with risk factors for COPD – who have repeated episodes of respiratory infections that linger and are slow to go away – should get a spirometry test about one or two months after the illness is gone to confirm their COPD diagnosis.

For patients with COPD, an acute exacerbation of COPD is serious and needs to be treated quickly.

Symptoms of these “lung attacks” include having more trouble breathing, coughing up more mucus, and/or having a change in the color of the mucus.

If you experience any of these symptoms, call your healthcare professional immediately.

Based on how severe your COPD is by spirometry, your clinician may check your oxygen level in your blood by placing an oxygen probe on your finger (called pulse oximetry) or drawing blood from an artery in your wrist (called an arterial blood gas).

If your oxygen levels are low when you are sitting and not doing any activities, then wearing supplemental oxygen in your nose for at least 16 to 24 hours each day – even if you are not having trouble breathing – will help you live longer.

If your oxygen levels are normal, wearing supplemental oxygen will not help you.

Undergoing a spirometry test to diagnose COPD has important benefits. If caught early in mild cases, the course and severity of the disease can be modified. Early detection of COPD results in less disability and a better quality of life.

Slide Show - Diagnosis and Evaluation of COPD

This slide show describes the tests used to diagnose and evaluate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as the symptoms suggestive of COPD. The animation also describes pulse oximetry, acute exacerbations of COPD, and the importance of early diagnosis for better patient outcomes.

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Animation - Diagnosis and Evaluation of COPD
1. Animation - Diagnosis and Evaluation of COPD
Slide Show - Diagnosis and Evaluation of COPD
2. Slide Show - Diagnosis and Evaluation of COPD
Expert Video - How is COPD diagnosed?
3. Expert Video - How is COPD diagnosed?
Expert Video - Why is early diagnosis of COPD important?
4. Expert Video - Why is early diagnosis of COPD important?
Expert Video - What is spirometry?
5. Expert Video - What is spirometry?
Expert Video - How often should I do spirometry?
6. Expert Video - How often should I do spirometry?
Expert Video - What is a pulse oximeter?
7. Expert Video - What is a pulse oximeter?
Expert Video - What is an acute exacerbation of COPD and what causes it?
8. Expert Video - What is an acute exacerbation of COPD and what causes it?
Expert Video - What other assessments are recommended for COPD patients with acute exacerbations?
9. Expert Video - What other assessments are recommended for COPD patients with acute exacerbations?
Expert Video - What is the long-term impact of acute exacerbations of COPD?
10. Expert Video - What is the long-term impact of acute exacerbations of COPD?
Patient Video - What advice do you have for persons who have early symptoms of COPD?
11. Patient Video - What advice do you have for persons who have early symptoms of COPD?
Patient Video - What is your experience with spirometry?
12. Patient Video - What is your experience with spirometry?

Jointly provided by the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences at Eisenhower and Prime Medic Inc., in collaboration with Postgraduate Institute for Medicine and Mechanisms in Medicine Inc.

This activity is supported by an educational grant from Boehringer Ingelheim

This website is part of the Animated Patient™ series developed by Mechanisms in Medicine Inc., to provide highly visual formats of learning for patients to improve their understanding, make informed decisions, and partner with their healthcare professionals for optimal outcomes.