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Am Fam Physician. 2005 Apr 15;71(8):1529-37.

Evaluation of chronic dyspnea.

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  • 1Department of Community Health and Family Medicine, University of Florida Health Science Center, Jacksonville, Florida 32209, USA.


Chronic dyspnea is defined as dyspnea lasting more than one month. In approximately two thirds of patients presenting with dyspnea, the underlying cause is cardiopulmonary disease. Establishing an accurate diagnosis is essential because treatment differs depending on the underlying condition. Asthma, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, cardiac ischemia, interstitial lung disease, and psychogenic causes account for 85 percent of patients with this principal symptom. The history and physical examination should guide selection of initial diagnostic tests such as electrocardiogram, chest radiograph, pulse oximetry, spirometry, complete blood count, and metabolic panel. If these are inconclusive, additional testing is indicated. Formal pulmonary function testing may be needed to establish a diagnosis of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or interstitial lung disease. High-resolution computed tomography is particularly useful for diagnosing interstitial lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, bronchiectasis, or pulmonary embolism. Echocardiography and brain natriuretic peptide levels help establish a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. If the diagnosis remains unclear, additional tests may be required. These include ventilation perfusion scans, Holter monitoring, cardiac catheterization, esophageal pH monitoring, lung biopsy, and cardiopulmonary exercise testing.

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