Diagnosis of Chronic Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis occurs when the main air passages to the lungs become inflamed, normally as the result of a viral infection. Chronic bronchitis is a different, long-term condition and, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is one type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The chances of recovery from chronic bronchitis are poor, but early recognition can significantly improve the long-term prognosis. Your doctor or health-care partner may undertake one or more of the following steps in order to establish a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis.

Physical examination

Most doctors will normally begin diagnosis with a thorough physical examination. The symptoms of chronic bronchitis include a serious cough that produces mucus, often with some traces of blood, as well as wheezing and general fatigue. Patients also often suffer from ankle, leg and foot swelling. Your doctor will look for physical symptoms of this nature and will ask a number of questions to establish the severity of your cough. In order to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, your cough must have occurred for three months or more in the last two consecutive years, according to The New York Times.

Chest X-ray

A simple chest X-ray is often used to attempt to diagnose chronic bronchitis. An X-ray is normally taken by standing in front of an X-ray machine, and it usually comprises two images. One image is taken through the chest from the back. A second image is normally taken through the chest from one side to the other. As The New York Times explains, you will be asked to hold your breath while the images are taken. Abnormal chest X-ray results can indicate a large number of different conditions. X-rays will be used in conjunction with other tests, not in isolation.

Pulmonary function testing (PFT)

Pulmonary function tests measure how well your lungs perform (taking in and releasing air) and how effectively oxygen is moved into the body's circulation. Three main tests are performed as part of PFT:

  • Spirometry measures how much air you exhale and how quickly.
  • Lung volume measurement looks at how much air your lungs can hold. Chronic bronchitis can cause the lungs to hold too much air.
  • Diffusion capacity estimates how well the lungs move oxygen into your bloodstream.

During these tests, your doctor will ask you to breathe in different ways (for example, slowly and deeply and then in short, sharp breaths) to fully measure your lungs' performance.

Chest CT scan

Thoracic CT (computer tomography) is an imaging method that uses X-rays to create pictures of the chest and upper abdomen. High-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) is a special type of CT that provides a detailed image of the lungs. According to the University of California Medical Center, this is performed in exactly the same way as a CT scan (on an open-air table) and takes just a few minutes. The results of the scan can be used to identify and diagnose chronic bronchitis.

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