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What Is a Pediatric Pulmonologist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

A pediatric pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in breathing and lung problems in children. They can help your child and your family learn to manage the symptoms of breathing problems, prevent complications, and improve their quality of life. A pediatric pulmonologist will evaluate your child’s lung health, diagnose the cause of the breathing problem, and develop a treatment plan.

What Does a Pediatric Pulmonologist Do?

The pediatric pulmonologist will use a wide variety of tests. These include:

  • Pulmonary function test to find out how well your child’s lungs are working. This is a set of painless measurements taken while your child does simple tasks like breathing out, walking, or riding a stationary bike.
  • Allergy testing, bloodwork, or a chest X-ray to look for what’s causing your child’s symptoms.

To help ease your child’s breathing symptoms, a pediatric pulmonologist can prescribe medication and/or treatments to be taken at home. These may include:

  • Nebulizer treatments (your child will breathe in a mist that sends medicine directly to their lungs)
  • Chest physiotherapy (a treatment that vibrates the rib cage to break up mucus in the lungs)
  • CPAP and BiPAP (machines that use air to assist with breathing during sleep)
  • Home oxygen or ventilator use for severe cases

Education and Training

A pediatric pulmonologist has: 

  • Earned a bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Graduated from medical school to become a doctor (4 years)
  • Completed additional training in pediatrics (3 years)
  • Completed additional training in pediatric pulmonology (at least 3 more years)
  • Passed exams to become certified in both pediatrics and pediatric pulmonology by the American Board of Pediatrics

What Conditions Does a Pediatric Pulmonologist Treat?

Pediatric pulmonologists see children with a broad range of breathing problems, from premature newborns with chronic lung disease to children with rare disorders like interstitial lung disease

Your child may need to see a pediatric pulmonologist because a part of their respiratory system (lungs, airway, nose, mouth, throat) developed in a way that makes it hard to breathe. Or the pulmonologist could be part of a medical team that treats your child for frequent aspiration (inhaling small amounts of food, drinks, saliva, or vomit) because of an aerodigestive disorder (a condition that affects your child’s airways and upper digestive tracts).

Asthma

In asthma, your child’s lungs and airways reaction to certain triggers by swelling and making extra mucus. This can cause wheezing, coughing, or difficulty breathing. Triggers vary but may include viruses (like colds or the flu), smoke, dust, mildew, pollen, animals, exercise, or stress. A pediatric pulmonologist can prescribe oral medications to help ease symptoms, provide inhalers and/or nebulizers that deliver medicine directly to the lungs, and order allergy testing to find out what’s triggering asthma flares.

Apnea

Short pauses in breathing can be normal for newborns. However, longer pauses are a concern. Infant apnea is a pause that lasts 20 seconds or longer (15 seconds in premature infants) or causes your baby’s heart rate to slow or their skin to turn pale or blue. Depending on the underlying cause, medication can sometimes help reduce the frequency of apnea.

Your family can learn CPR and how to make your child’s surroundings safer. The doctor may prescribe an infant apnea monitor. It can alert you if your baby stops breathing. Most babies improve over time. They only need treatment until the apnea goes away.

Sleep disorders

Obstructive sleep apnea is a pattern of brief pauses in breathing because the airway collapses during sleep. Oxygen levels drop and your child wakes up just long enough to start breathing normally again. The child may not be aware that they’re waking during the night but they might have trouble concentrating, behavior problems, or daytime sleepiness. Central sleep apnea occurs when your child stops breathing during sleep because their brain doesn’t cue their body to breathe. Pediatric pulmonologists can diagnose sleep disorders and, when needed, prescribe a CPAP or BiPAP machine to help your child breathe normally during sleep.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited disease that leads to the production of thick mucus, clogging airways and trapping germs in the lungs. As a result, children with CF may have frequent lung infections and trouble breathing. Treatments include inhaled medications and daily at-home therapy to break up mucus and clear airways.

Reasons to See a Pediatric Pulmonologist

Your child’s pediatrician may refer them to a pediatric pulmonologist if they have:

  • Trouble breathing
  • A cough that doesn’t go away
  • Frequent lung infections and pneumonia (fluid in the lungs)
  • Noisy breathing
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatrics: “What is a Pediatric Pulmonologist?”

Boston Medical Center: “Pediatrics – Pulmonology and Allergy.”

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: “About Cystic Fibrosis.”

Healthy Children: “What is a Pediatric Pulmonologist?”

Michigan Medicine: “Pulmonology (Pediatric Lung Disease and Respiratory Care).”

Nationwide Children’s Hospital: “Apnea.”

Stanford Health Care: “Pediatric Sleep Disorders.”

UVA Children’s Hospital: “Asthma.”

American Speech Hearing Language Association: “Aerodigestive Disorders.”

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