Knowing how well your lungs work

How do you know if your lungs are healthy?

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Last updated:
08/08/2021

“This article is going to be about how you can get your lungs checked. The important things to know are why you might want a lung function test and what this test can tell your doctor.

Why should I get my lungs checked?

There are many reasons why someone would want to have their lung function tested. One of the most common reasons is if they think they have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or suspect they might have it. Lung function tests can provide a diagnosis for COPD and help determine the severity of it by measuring how much air the person takes in or blows out in 1 second.

What test are done to check lungs?

A lung function test, called spirometry, can be conducted in a hospital or clinic. Special instruments are used to measure the amount of air that is inhaled and exhaled. One of these instruments is called a spirometer. Most lung function tests measure the amount of air you can breathe out in one second, which is called your forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV 1 ).

Another important measurement occurs after you breathe in as much air as you can. When you breathe in deeply, some air actually goes into your stomach because your stomach fills with air before your lungs fill with oxygen. So it’s important to measure how much oxygen gets into your lungs when you breathe out after taking a deep breath. This measurement is called your forced vital capacity (FVC).

There are many other lung function measurements. In some cases, a test may give two or more of these numbers. The results will usually be in percentages that show how much of each measurement you have compared to the average for people of the same sex and age as you.

Some tests can be done at home. These tests will provide your doctor with more information about how well your lungs are working and how COPD is affecting them. These tests are also called spirometry, but they don’t always use instruments to measure the amount of air you breathe in and out. One of these tests, called the portable peak flow meter, is similar to a small breathalyzer that you blow into. It will allow you to measure your peak flow at home and tell your doctor how well your lungs are working.

Another home test is the single breath carbon monoxide diffusing capacity (DLco). This test measures how much carbon monoxide will get into your bloodstream when you breathe in as much air as possible in 1 second. It requires breathing in a small amount of carbon monoxide. A portable diffusing capacity meter is used to measure how much carbon monoxide you breathe out after breathing in the small amount of carbon monoxide. A DLco test can be done at home and does not require any needles.

How is COPD diagnosed?

Your health care provider will get a medical history and will do a physical examination. Your provider will ask how you have been feeling, especially about any changes in your breathing or shortness of breath. He or she may look for other symptoms, such as fatigue, pain, depression, and changes in your moods or thinking ability. Your health care provider will also ask if anyone else in the family has had emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Your provider may order certain tests. These include:

Complete blood cell count (CBC) – will look for anemia; the CBC can be done at home, if ordered by your health care provider

Chest x-ray – a standard chest x-ray will be taken while you are breathing normally and then again after you have been sitting quietly for 5 minutes. It is used to detect possible lung problems like pneumonia and cancer; it is also used to look for possible fluid build up in the lungs or damage to your lungs from over smoking. If all of these things are present, a chest CT scan may be ordered. A chest CT scan uses computer technology to show detailed pictures of your lungs.

Additional tests may be performed to determine your lung capacity. For example, you will be asked to blow hard into a special tube called a spirometer. In the lab, measurements are taken of how much air you can blow in one breathful. If you cannot blow in the required amount of air after sitting quietly for 5 minutes, this test may also be performed as a baseline. Another test measures how much air pressure your lungs are able to produce and this measurement is used to estimate your lung volume. A third test involves how fast carbon dioxide leaves the body with each breath; this measurement along with the other two tests is used to calculate your functional residual capacity (FRC).

A chest x-ray will show the size and shape of your lungs, heart, and other organs in the chest. It will also show if you have inflammation, fluid build up, or other problems. CT scans use a computer to create pictures of your lungs to look for signs of emphysema or lung cancer in the tissue.

Your health care provider may order additional tests if you have symptoms of respiratory failure (breathing stops for example). If you breathe too slowly or too irregularly (fewer than 8 breaths per minute), he or she may order a pulmonary arterial catheterization. This test measures how oxygen moves through your lungs and shows how well your heart is working to pump blood around your body. It will also show if your blood is filled with carbon monoxide, which can lead to a condition called carboxyhemoglobin. This test may be performed in a hospital and requires general anesthesia.

What are the treatment options for COPD?

The primary goal of COPD care is to keep you comfortable and well so you don’t need as much medicare coverage for medical care or nursing care. You will also receive education about good living habits, sleep hygiene, stopping smoking, and managing stress. Your health care provider may also refer you to smaller-group rehabilitation programs or private therapists because your COPD affects your ability to do many things at home such as walking up stairs or lifting items from the floor.

Your health care provider may also prescribe one or more of these medicines:

Bronchodilators – help widen (dilate) the airways

Corticosteroids – reduce inflammation in the airways. Don’t use these medications for more than four to six weeks at a time because they can affect your bones, which can lead to nerve damage

Antibiotics – reduce the bacterial infections that can cause airway narrowing

Antihistamines – relax breathing muscles and also make you drowsy; don’t use these medications for more than 3 days in a row because they can cause a problem called rebound hypertension

What are the other treatment options for COPD?

There are not many other treatment options at the present time for managing COPD. If you suffer from sleep apnea, it is important that you be evaluated by your health care provider. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may restore normal breathing during sleep.”

Find out about more about Lung tests, this information about Lung Function Tests will tell you what to expect and more about each test.