How is emphysema diagnosed?

The diagnosis of emphysema cannot be made solely on symptoms. Several tests are used to make the diagnosis. One simple test is to tap on your chest and listen with a stethoscope for a hollow sound. This means that air is being trapped in your lungs. Other tests include:

  • X-rays: X-rays are generally not useful for detecting early stages of emphysema. However,
    X-rays can help diagnose moderate or severe cases. Either a plain chest X-ray or a CAT (computer-aided tomography) scan can be used. Once the test is completed, the readings are compared to X-rays of healthy or normal lungs.
  • Pulse oximetry: This test is also known as an oxygen saturation test. Pulse oximetry is used to measure the oxygen content of the blood. This is done by attaching the monitor to a person’s finger, forehead, or earlobe.
  • Spirometry and pulmonary function tests (PFT): This is one of the most useful tests to determine airway blockage. A spirometry or PFT tests the lungs’ volume by measuring airflow while a patient inhales and exhales. This test is done by taking a deep breath and then blowing into a tube that is hooked up to a specialized machine. These tests are compared to normal results from people of similar gender, age, height, weight and ethnic background.
  • Arterial blood gas: This test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood from an artery. It is a test often used as emphysema worsens. It is especially helpful in determining if a patient needs extra oxygen.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): ECGs check heart function and are used to rule out heart disease as a cause of shortness of breath.

You might also talk to your doctor about whether testing for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is appropriate for you.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy