Individuals who are developing COPD may not show symptoms until the disease is well-developed. It is important to ask your doctor about taking a breathing test (known as a spirometry) if you are a current or former smoker, or have been exposed to harmful lung irritants for a long period of time. A spirometry test is used to measure how well your lungs are working. It’s a simple and easy test that can help diagnose COPD in an individual. Spirometry tests are also known as Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs) or Lung Function Tests.
The following information will help you learn more about the Who, What, Why, and How on taking a spirometry test.
Who should get tested for COPD?
Most individuals with COPD are 40 years and older, with a history of smoking. However, many individuals with COPD have never smoked. Individuals at risk for developing COPD have a history of smoking, or have had long-term exposure to air pollutants (including pollution and second-hand smoke)1. Individuals with symptoms (including chronic coughing with or without sputum, wheezing, tightness in chest, and increased breathlessness) should also talk to their doctor about taking a spirometry test.
What does the test consist of?
The test for diagnosing COPD is a simple and non-invasive test called a spirometry. A spirometry can detect if you have COPD even before you start showing symptoms. When you take the test, you will be asked to blow all the air out of your lungs into a hose connected to a machine known as a spirometer. A spirometer is very sensitive so it can easily measure and detect COPD even before symptoms start showing.
The machine will calculate two numbers: the amount of air you blow out in the first second, and the amount of air you blow out in 6 seconds. These numbers are represented in FEV1 and FVC scores. FEV1 stands for the Forced Expiratory Volume in the first second—the amount of air you exhaled in the first second of blowing. FVC stands for Forced Vital Capacity—the amount of air that you exhaled in one entire breath.
A spirometry test can also show your doctor how severe your COPD may or may not be. There are approximately four stages for COPD2:
- At-risk (for developing COPD): The results from the spirometry test are normal but there are symptoms of chronic coughing and/or sputum.
- Mild: The spirometry test shows that there is a mild limitation of the lung airways. Chronic coughing and sputum symptoms may be present.
- Moderate: The spirometry test results show that there is a worsening limitation in the lung airways. Other symptoms (in addition to chronic coughing and sputum production) may present themselves, including a shortness of breath while engaging in brisk activities (walking fast, etc.).
- Severe: The breathing test results show a severe limitation in the lung airways. At this stage, an individual with COPD will run out of breath in the simplest activities. More severe complications can arise at this stage, including respiratory or heart failure.
Your doctor may order other tests to see if your symptoms are caused by lung disorders other than COPD. Your doctor may recommend Bronchodilator Reversibility Testing, which is when you use a bronchodilator (a medication that relaxes your lung muscles to allow you to breathe with more ease) and then have you take a spirometry test to see if your symptoms are caused by other disorders. Your doctor may also order a chest x-ray to see if your symptoms are brought on by other problems instead of COPD.
Why is it important to get tested for COPD?
Leaving symptoms untreated or misdiagnosed may cause them to quickly worsen rather than if they were treated with proper medication and therapy. With a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, symptoms can be controlled and the progress of the disease can be delayed.
How can I get tested?
Ask your primary care doctor about taking a spirometry test. Although most primary care doctors may not have a spirometer in his/her office, your doctor can refer you to where you can take the test. You can also visit our Mobile Spirometry Unit (MSU) when it’s in your town to get tested for free. Click here to read more about our MSU program.
1 Information from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Copd/Copd_WhoIsAtRisk.html. Website last accessed 3/18/08.
2 This information is available on the NHLBI website at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Copd/Copd_Diagnosis.html. Website last accessed 3/18/08.