What Is a Pulmonologist?
For some relatively short-lasting illnesses that affect your lungs, like the flu or pneumonia, you might be able to get all the care you need from your regular doctor. But if your cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms don't get better, you might need to see a pulmonologist.
What is pulmonology?
Internal medicine is the type of medical care that deals with adult health, and pulmonology is one of its many fields. Pulmonologists focus on the respiratory system and diseases that affect it. The respiratory system includes your:
- Mouth and nose
- Throat (pharynx)
- Voice box (larynx)
- Windpipe (trachea)
- Bronchial tubes
- Lungs and things inside them like bronchioles and alveoli
What Conditions Do Pulmonologists Treat?
A pulmonologist can treat many kinds of lung problems. These include:
- Asthma, a disease that inflames and narrows your airways and makes it hard to breathe
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis
- Cystic fibrosis, a disease caused by changes in your genes that makes sticky mucus build up in your lungs
- Emphysema, which damages the air sacs in your lungs
- Interstitial lung disease, a group of conditions that scar and stiffen your lungs
- Lung cancer, a type of cancer that starts in the lungs
- Obstructive sleep apnea, which causes repeated pauses in your breathing while you sleep
- Pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the arteries of your lungs
- Tuberculosis , a bacterial infection of the lungs
- Bronchiectasis, which damages your airways so they widen and become flabby or scarred
- Bronchitis, which is when your airways are inflamed, with a cough and extra mucus. It can lead to an infection.
- Pneumonia, an infection that makes the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs inflamed and filled with pus
- COVID-19 pneumonia, which can cause severe breathing problems and respiratory failure
What Kind of Training Do Pulmonologists Have?
A pulmonologist's training starts with a medical school degree. Then, they do an internal medicine residency at a hospital for 3 years to get more experience. After their residency, doctors can get certified in internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine.
That's followed by several years of specialized training as a fellow in pulmonary medicine. Finally, they must pass specialty exams to become board-certified in pulmonology. Some doctors get even more training in a disease like asthma or COPD. Others might specialize in younger or older patients.
How Do Pulmonologists Diagnose Lung Diseases?
Pulmonologists use tests to figure out what kind of lung problem you have. They might ask you to get:
- Blood tests. They check levels of oxygen and other things in your blood.
- Bronchoscopy. It uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end to see inside your lungs and airways.
- X-rays. They use low doses of radiation to make images of your lungs and other things in your chest.
- CT scan. It's a powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures of the inside of your chest.
- Spirometry. This tests how well your lungs work by measuring how hard you can breathe air in and out.
What Kinds of Procedures Do Pulmonologists Do?
Pulmonologists can do special procedures such as:
- Pulmonary hygiene. This clears fluid and mucus from your lungs.
- Airway ablation. This opens blocked air passages or eases difficult breathing.
- Biopsy. This takes tissue samples to diagnose disease.
- Bronchoscopy. This looks inside your lungs and airways to diagnose disease.
Why See a Pulmonologist
You might see a pulmonologist if you have symptoms such as:
- A cough that is severe or that lasts more than 3 weeks
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Severe tiredness
- Asthma that’s hard to control
- Bronchitis or a cold that keeps coming back
How Do You Find One?
Your health insurance company might want you to get a referral from your regular doctor before you can see a pulmonologist. Even if it doesn’t, you can still ask your doctor for a recommendation.
Another way to find a pulmonary specialist is to check your insurance company's network of providers. Then you'll know that your plan covers the doctor you choose.