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Lung diffusion testing

  • Definition
    • 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.

  • Alternative Names
    • Diffusing capacity; DLCO test

  • 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
  • Risks
    • There are no significant risks.

  • Considerations
  • 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.