What Is a Pulmonologist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 28, 2021

Pulmonologists are doctors who focus on the diseases and conditions that affect the respiratory system. They may treat common problems like asthma or serious conditions such as lung cancer. Many also spend time in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU), helping patients who are in respiratory failure. 

Pulmonologists are often trained in critical care, treating people who have serious injuries or problems with multiple organ systems.

What Does a Pulmonologist Do?

Pulmonologists often work in ICUs and other hospital departments. Many also work in pulmonary medicine practices or multidisciplinary group practices. Some may work in sleep labs, helping treat disorders such as sleep apnea.

Most people who have common respiratory issues see general internists, but pulmonologists can help diagnose and manage unusual and complicated disorders. They often work with cardiologists, as many respiratory disorders can also affect the cardiovascular system. 

Interventional pulmonology, the branch that involves medical procedures, is a growing field. In addition to common critical care treatments, these specialists use tools to do things like take out tumors and drain fluid from around the lungs.

Pulmonologists may also play a role in preventive medicine, especially around risk factors for lung cancer that are related to your job or other aspects of the world around you. 

Education and Training

A pulmonologist’s education depends on whether they enter a combined critical care and pulmonology program.

After college, all pulmonologists must have:

  • An average of 4 years in medical school
  • A 3-year residency in internal medicine
  • An exam to become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine

Pulmonologists then do:

  • A 2-year fellowship in pulmonary medicine that includes at least 12 months of clinical training
  • A pulmonary board exam to become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine as a pulmonologist

After that, pulmonology and critical care specialists complete:

  • A 3-year fellowship with at least 18 months of clinical training (6 months each in critical care, pulmonary medicine, and combined care)
  • A pulmonary board exam to become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine as a pulmonologist
  • A critical care certification exam, also provided by the American Board of Internal Medicine

What Conditions Does a Pulmonologist Treat?

Pulmonologists may treat a variety of issues, including respiratory system infections and critical conditions. Some disorders that pulmonologists handle frequently include:

  • Asthma. Asthma causes the airways to inflame, tighten, or fill with mucus. Primary care doctors may treat many types. But if it’s out of control or has unidentified triggers, a pulmonologist may step in.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) . COPD covers both long-term (chronic) bronchitis and emphysema, conditions that make it hard to breathe. It most commonly happens because of years of exposure to things that irritate your lungs, such as cigarettes.
  • Interstitial lung disease. There are several types of interstitial lung diseases, which can be acute (short-lasting) or chronic. It happens when part of your lung called the interstitium thickens, making it hard to breathe. 
  • Lung cancer. Lung cancer starts in the lungs but may spread to other areas of the body.
  • Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person stops breathing, often repeatedly, during sleep. It can be dangerous if they don’t get enough oxygen.

Reasons to See a Pulmonologist

A pulmonologist shouldn’t be your first stop when you have a simple cough or cold. See your primary care physician, or head to urgent care if the matter can’t wait. 

Your general physician may refer you to a pulmonologist if you have:

  • Certain types of asthma
  • Recurring or chronic bronchitis
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Fainting episodes
  • Chest pains or tightness
  • A sleep disorder

You may also see a pulmonologist if you get certain kinds of critical care at a hospital.

Show Sources


American College of Physicians: “Pulmonary Disease.”

American Lung Association: “What is a pulmonologist?”

American Medical Association: “Critical Care Medicine Specialty Description.”

American Medical Association: “Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine Specialty Description.”

American Thoracic Society: “Choosing Pulmonary/Critical Care.”

American Thoracic Society: “Fact Sheets: Topic Specific.”

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