What to Expect at Your First Visit to a Pulmonologist

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on December 12, 2022

If your doctor thinks you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), they may refer you to a specialist called a pulmonologist for a diagnosis.

Or you might see a pulmonologist after you've been diagnosed, if you're having trouble keeping your COPD symptoms under control.

A pulmonologist treats diseases that involve the respiratory system. That includes your lungs, windpipe, and other parts of your body that help you breathe.

COPD is sometimes hard to diagnose, since other conditions have similar symptoms. A specialist can help ensure you have the right diagnosis.

It's also a long-lasting and sometimes complicated condition. A doctor with extra training in lung conditions can help you find the best way to manage it. Some pulmonologists specialize in treating people with COPD.

A pulmonologist can also recommend other health care professionals, such as respiratory therapists and educators, to help with your treatment.

Bring your medical records. The simplest way to do this is to ask your primary doctor's office to send copies to the pulmonologist's staff. Your pulmonologist will want to see:

  • Bloodwork results
  • X-rays or results of other imaging tests
  • Pulmonary function test results
  • Any other records of your medical history

Also bring a list of all your medications and supplements, including their dosage and how often you take them. Or simply take a picture of them with your cellphone.

This medications list helps your pulmonologist to see whether you have other conditions that might also cause breathing problems. Also, some medications may make your COPD symptoms worse.

If you use a bronchodilator or inhaler, bring that with you too. During your visit, show your doctor how you use it so they can see if you're doing it correctly.

Arrive early to fill out the paperwork, unless the pulmonologist's office sent it to you ahead of time. It will include a medical history with:

  • Dates of any surgeries you've had
  • Your smoking history
  • Your recent vaccinations
  • Major illnesses that have affected you or your immediate family

You can expect typical doctor’s office tasks such as measurements of your height, weight, blood pressure, and temperature. The staff will also check your oxygen levels.

The pulmonologist will give you a physical exam. They'll examine your fingers and lips to see if your skin has a blue tinge. They'll also look for swelling in your legs and feet, and check the veins in your neck to see if blood is backing up there.

Your pulmonologist may give you a few tests to diagnose your COPD or confirm your diagnosis. A spirometry test, which measures how much air you can exhale, is the main test for COPD. To take it, you blow through a tube that's hooked up to a machine. The doctor may also order a chest x-ray or a CT scan.

Your doctor might also do an exercise oximetry test to see what happens to your oxygen levels when you're active. They'll put an oxygen sensor on your finger and have you walk around. They may also give you a 6-minute walking test to measure how far you can walk in that time.

Bring a list of questions for the specialist. They might include:

Your pulmonologist may ask about your symptoms, including how often you have them. If you've had success with any treatments, share those details too. Tell the doctor if you've gone to the emergency room for breathing problems or have been treated for bronchitis.

COPD is more likely to affect people who smoke or have chronic asthma or bronchitis. So your doctor may ask about your smoking history, including how much you smoke, or smoked, and for how long.

They'll ask for details about your cough:

  • How often do you cough?
  • Does it happen more during one time of the day?
  • If you cough up mucus, what color is it?
  • Have you ever coughed up blood?

And they'll want to know about your shortness of breath and when it occurs:

  • Which activities make breathing more difficult?
  • How long do you strain to breathe?
  • Is there a certain time of day when it’s harder to breathe?
  • Is it harder to breathe during certain seasons?
  • Do you have any allergies?

Show Sources


American Lung Association: "Know Your Providers: What Does a Pulmonologist Do?" "The Basics of Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Get Ready for Your Next Office Visit," "Questions to Ask Your Doctor about COPD." 

Pulmonary Education and Research Foundation: "Preparing for a Visit to the Doctor."

National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Bronchodilators."

University of Michigan Medicine: "COPD & Emphysema."

Stormont Vail Health: "7 Questions to Ask your Physician About Your Lung Disease Diagnosis."

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington: "History and Physical Exam for COPD."

Mayo Clinic: "COPD."

William Crosland, M.D. pulmonologist, Atlanta Lung Specialists, Atlanta.

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