Spirometry should not be used to screen adults for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) if they have no symptoms.

This recommendation comes from the US Preventive Services Task Force after it found that the benefits of the screening in individuals without symptoms of COPD were very small.

Spirometry is a common way for physicians to screen for COPD by having a patient breathe into a tube attached to the spirometry machine, which measures the amount of air the lungs can hold and the rate of inhalation and exhalation. These measurements are then compared with the results of other tests of healthy individuals of the same race, gender, height, and age.

The task force makes this new recommendation based on the finding that approximately 400 adults between the ages of 60 and 69 would have to be screened in order to identify a single patient who may later develop severe symptoms of the disease. In addition, the task force also found that using spirometry can substantially over-diagnose COPD in patients more than 70 years of age.

“ Our review of the evidence found that screening for COPD with spirometry in patients who report no symptoms provides very little or no benefit to individuals, even in those who are eventually diagnosed with the disease,” says Task Force Chair Ned Calonge, MD. “We encourage clinicians to focus on screening all adults for tobacco use and helping individuals who smoke to choose evidence-based therapies that can help them to quit.”

The recommendation and its evidence can be found in the print edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine April 2008.