Preventing underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis of COPD

By Asthma WA Respiratory Health Educator and Senior Respiratory Scientist, Charlene Butler

Undiagnosed and misdiagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a problem worldwide that can have serious consequences for people experiencing respiratory symptoms.  Living with COPD without being diagnosed may negatively affect that person’s quality of life, limit accessibility to support for quitting smoking and increase the number of preventable exacerbations they experience which ultimately may lead to disease progression. 

On the other hand, being incorrectly diagnosed (misdiagnosis) with COPD can not only affect that person’s psychosocial wellbeing but may also lead to that person paying for medications that may not be appropriate and can lead to the true underlying cause of their symptoms going undetected and untreated. 

So what can you do to prevent underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of COPD from happening to you and your loved ones?  The simple answer is: have a lung function test done, specifically a test called “spirometry”. This test is essential to confirm a diagnosis of COPD.  Unfortunately, many people have been diagnosed with COPD just from their presenting symptoms and a chest x-ray, but this is not enough. Spirometry must be completed to confirm this diagnosis is accurate and ensure the right treatment plan is developed.

To prevent underdiagnosis of COPD, it’s critical for people to discuss their lung health and any respiratory symptoms they may be having with their doctor.  One of the main symptoms of COPD is breathlessness when exercising.  This can progress very slowly over time, making it difficult for people to recognise that their shortness of breath is getting worse.  People also have a habit of attributing their breathlessness to “getting old”, which may not be the causative factor! Other respiratory symptoms that are worth discussing with your primary care provider include wheezing, chronic cough with or without phlegm and chest tightness.  Chronic cough is another symptom that people notoriously dismiss and don’t think to discuss with their doctor.  Many people who smoke cigarettes think their cough is “just a smoker’s cough”, but before making this assumption, people should talk to their doctor about this and get spirometry done as this could indicate lung disease.

If you have been diagnosed with COPD and haven’t had spirometry done before, get yourself booked in to have it done to make sure your diagnosis is correct.  Other signs that you should get your lungs checked by spirometry include:

  • if you are experiencing any respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, wheeze, or chest tightness,
  • experience recurring chest infections,
  • have close family relatives with COPD,
  • smoke or previously smoked cigarettes, e-cigarettes, marijuana or other illicit substances,
  • work or have worked in an occupation where you have been exposed to dusts, chemicals or fumes,
  • if you are over the age of 60

Want to get your lungs tested?  Register yourself for Lung Function Testing by one of our experienced Respiratory Scientists. This service is fully bulk-billed and there are no out-of-pocket expenses to receive this service.

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