Diagnosing hypersensitivity pneumonitis can be difficult and requires input from pulmonologists, radiologists and, in many cases, pathologists experienced in evaluating patients with interstitial lung disease. A face-to-face discussion among these various specialists is often necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.
To determine if you have HP, your doctor will start by conducting a thorough medical history and physical examination. The medical history will include discussing other medical problems you have that could be related to lung scarring, such as connective tissue diseases, and reviewing any medications you're taking. A thorough review of potential occupational and environmental exposures to antigens is also essential, and we will take a detailed home and work history. This will include exposures to mold, birds and bird products, such as down. The physical exam will include listening to your chest with a stethoscope and carefully examining your skin and joints.
In addition to a thorough medical history and physical exam, your doctor may conduct the following tests:
- Pulmonary Function Test (PFT) — This test involves a series of breathing exercises that measure the airflows, volume of air in your lungs and ability of your lungs to extract oxygen from the air. This allows your doctor to assess the function of your lungs.
- High Resolution Computed Tomography (HRCT) — This is a special type of CT scan that provides your doctor with high-resolution images of your lungs. Images are taken in several different ways, including lying on your back (supine), lying on your chest (prone) and while breathing air out of your chest (dynamic expiration). These images are extremely valuable in determining whether or not you have HP. Having an HRCT is very similar to having a regular CT scan; they both take only a few minutes.
- Blood Tests — We may order blood tests, also called serologies, to test for the presence of various antibodies — proteins created by the immune system to deactivate or destroy antigens — to look for evidence of exposure to various antigens and for evidence of connective tissue diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma. Blood testing isn't useful in diagnosing most cases of HP, but it may be used in certain situations to help with the diagnosis.
- Six-Minute Walk Test — This test evaluates the distance you can walk within six minutes and the oxygen saturations, measured by finger or ear probe, you achieve while walking.
- Bronchoscopy — In this test, the doctor passes a flexible fiberoptic scope, about the diameter of a pencil, into the lungs to take fluid and tissue samples. This test doesn't require an overnight stay in the hospital. Bronchoscopy is used to aid in a diagnosis of HP and may be performed in certain circumstances.
- Surgical Lung Biopsy — This test is required for some patients to definitively diagnose HP. A cardiothoracic surgeon performs the surgical lung biopsy, usually with small tools and cameras through one-inch-long incisions. Patients will need to stay in the hospital for a few days.
- Home Evaluation — Your doctor may recommend a professional inspection of your home by a certified industrial hygienist. Industrial hygienists are trained in evaluating homes for potential hazardous exposures, particularly molds. This can be quite expensive but may uncover important exposures that are not otherwise obvious. Whether or not to perform a home evaluation should be discussed with your doctor.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.