What Do Pulmonologists Do?

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 improve, you might need to see a pulmonologist.

Pulmonologists are specialists who diagnose and treat diseases of the respiratory system -- the lungs and other organs that help you breathe.

What Diseases Do Pulmonologists Treat?

There are many lung problems that a pulmonologist can treat. For example, you might go to one if you have asthma, a disease that inflames and narrows your airwaves and makes it hard to breathe.

Other diseases they treat are:

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It's a group of lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Cystic fibrosis . It's an inherited disease that causes sticky mucus to build up in your lungs.

Emphysema. This damages the air sacs in your lungs.

Interstitial lung disease. It's a group of conditions that scar and stiffen your lungs.

Lung cancer. This is a type of cancer that starts in the lungs.

Obstructive sleep apnea . This condition causes repeated pauses in your breathing while you sleep.

Pulmonary hypertension. This means you have high blood pressure in the arteries of your lungs.

Tuberculosis. It's a bacterial infection of the lungs.

What Kind of Training Do They 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 gain 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 specialized training in a disease like asthma or COPD.

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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 substances in your blood.

Bronchoscopy. It uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end to see inside the lungs and airways.

CT scan . It's a powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures from inside your chest.

Spirometry. This tests how well your lungs work by measuring how hard you can breathe air in and out.

X-rays. They use low doses of radiation to make images of your lungs and other structures in your chest.

What Kinds of Procedures Do Pulmonologists Do?

Pulmonologists sometimes do procedures to:

  • Clear fluid and mucus from your lungs
  • Open blocked air passages or ease difficult breathing
  • Take tissue samples to diagnose disease
  • Look inside your lungs and airways to diagnose disease

When Would You See a Pulmonologist?

You might see a pulmonologist if you have symptoms such as:

How Do You Find One?

Your health insurance company might want you to get a referral from your doctor before you can see a pulmonologist. Even if it doesn’t, you can still ask your regular 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 your plan covers the doctor you choose.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 11, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Asthma Overview."

American Cancer Society: "Thoracoscopy."

American College of Pulmonology: "Pulmonary Disease."

American Lung Association: "Emphysema," "Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD)," "Know Your Providers: What Does A Pulmonologist Do?" "Lung Volume Reduction Surgery," "Spirometry."

Cancer Research UK: "Cryotherapy."

CDC: "Basic TB Facts."

COPD Foundation: "About the COPD Foundation."

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: "About Cystic Fibrosis."

Mayo Clinic: "Bronchoscopy," "Lung cancer: Symptoms & causes," "Obstructive sleep apnea: Symptoms & causes," "Pulmonary hypertension: Symptoms & causes."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Tracheal or Bronchial Stent Placement."

Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center: "Pleurodesis."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Thoracentesis."

Nationwide Children's Hospital: "Bronchoscopy."

NHS: "Indwelling Pleural Catheter (IPC)."

UCSD: "Balloon Dilation."

Yale School of Medicine: "Bronchial Thermoplasty."

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