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Neth J Med. 2012 Jan;70(1):6-11.

Diagnostic management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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Julius Centre for Health Sciences and Primary Care, University Medical Centre Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands.


Detection of early chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in patients presenting with respiratory symptoms is recommended; however, diagnosing COPD is difficult because a single gold standard is not available. The aim of this article is to review and interpret the existing evidence, theories and consensus on the individual parts of the diagnostic work-up for COPD. Relevant articles are discussed under the subheadings: history taking, physical examination, spirometry and additional lung function assessment. Wheezing, cough, phlegm and breathlessness on exertion are suggestive signs for COPD. The diagnostic value of the physical examination is limited, except for auscultated pulmonary wheezing or reduced breath sounds, increasing the probability of COPD. Spirometric airflow obstruction after bronchodilation, defined as a lowered ratio of the forced volume in one second to the forced vital capacity (FEV1/FVC ratio), is a prerequisite, but can only confirm COPD in combination with suggestive symptoms. Different thresholds are being recommended to define low FEV1/FVC, including a fixed threshold, and one varying with gender and age; however, the way physicians interpret these thresholds in their assessment is not well known. Body plethysmography allows a more complete assessment of pulmonary function, providing results on the total lung capacity and the residual volume and is indicated when conventional spirometry results are inconclusive. Chest radiography has no diagnostic value for COPD but is useful to exclude alternative diagnoses such as heart failure or lung cancer. Extensive history taking is of key importance in diagnosing COPD.

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