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Lung diffusion testing

Diffusing capacity; DLCO test

 

Lung diffusion testing measures how well the lungs exchange gases. This is an important part of lung testing, because the major function of the lungs is to allow oxygen to "diffuse" or pass into the blood from the lungs, and to allow carbon dioxide to "diffuse" from the blood into the lungs.

How the Test is Performed

 

You breathe in (inhale) air containing a very small amount of carbon monoxide and a tracer gas, such as methane or helium. You hold your breath for 10 seconds, then rapidly blow it out (exhale). The exhaled gas is tested to determine how much of the tracer gas was absorbed during the breath.

 

How to Prepare for the Test

 

Before taking this test:

  • Do not eat a heavy meal before the test.
  • Do not smoke for at least 4 to 6 hours before the test.
  • If you use a bronchodilator or other inhaled medicines, ask your health care provider whether or not you can use them before the test.

 

How the Test will Feel

 

The mouthpiece fits tightly around your mouth. Clips are put on your nose.

 

Why the Test is Performed

 

The test is used to diagnose certain lung diseases, and to monitor the status of people with established lung disease. Repeatedly measuring the diffusing capacity can help determine whether the disease is improving or getting worse.

 

Normal Results

 

Normal test results depend on a person's:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Height
  • Hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen) level

 

What Abnormal Results Mean

 

Abnormal results mean that gases do not move normally across the lung tissues into the blood vessels of the lung. This may be due to lung diseases such as:

  • Emphysema
  • Interstitial fibrosis
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Lung hemorrhage
  • Asthma

 

Risks

 

There are no significant risks.

 

Considerations

 

Other pulmonary function tests may be done together with this test.

 

 

References

Gold WM, Koth LL. Pulmonary function testing. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 25.

Scanlon PD. Respiratory function: mechanisms and testing. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 85.

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        Review Date: 11/19/2015

        Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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