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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.

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Lung diffusion testing

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:

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:

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:

Risks

There are no significant risks.

Considerations

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

Related Information

Lung disease
Interstitial lung disease
Sarcoidosis
Asbestosis

References

Bhakta NR, Kaminsky DA. Pulmonary function testing: Physiologic and technical principles. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 31.

Scanlon PD. Respiratory function: mechanisms and testing. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 79.

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Review Date: 12/6/2021  

Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Paul F. Harron, Jr. 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, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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