Emphysema Diagnosis

A medical diagnosis of emphysema requires a physical exam of the lungs. Chest x-rays are commonly used to make the medical diagnosis. CT scans of the lungs, and blood tests may also be required for a firm diagnosis of emphysema.

Emphysema Diagnosis - Emphysema

The Physical Exam: Testing the Lungs

The medical diagnosis starts with a physical exam of the lungs. The doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to the lungs. Emphysema does not produce the wheezing characteristic of bronchitis. Instead, lung sounds are faint and diminished.

Emphysema may produce a “barrel chest” as the lungs hyper-inflate and change shape. This sign is most likely to be noticed in advanced cases of emphysema.


If the results of the physical exam warrant further investigation, a spirometry test will be ordered. During spirometry you breathe into a tube attached to a machine (spirometer) that measures lung function. Spirometry determines the volume of the lungs, and how quickly air can be expelled from the lungs. The results of spirometry, combined with the physical exam, provide information about lung function that helps make a medical diagnosis.

Chest X-rays and Emphysema

After the physical exam, most doctors will order a chest x-ray. A chest x-ray rules out several other complications, including the possibility of lung cancer or pneumonia. A chest x-ray may also reveal the presence of over-inflated lungs, a common sign of emphysema. Many doctors consider a chest x-ray to be the most helpful test performed during the medical diagnosis.

CT Scans and Blood Tests

If further testing is required after the chest x-ray and physical exam, a CT scan may be ordered to provide a more detailed x-ray of the lungs.

Blood tests may be required during the medical diagnosis of emphysema. High levels of white blood cells may indicate an infection of the lungs. Advanced stage emphysema may require an arterial blood gas test. This test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide present in the blood. Low levels of oxygen may require treatment with an oxygen mask.