What Does a Pulmonologist Do?
If you’re struggling with shortness of breath, your doctor might refer you to a pulmonologist. These doctors specialize in the respiratory system. They understand how the lungs work. They are also experts in how the airways, muscles, and blood vessels function together so you can breathe easily. Here’s information to help you understand more about what a pulmonologist does and what working with one to address your health needs might be like.
How Does Someone Become a Pulmonologist?
Like all doctors, pulmonologists complete four years of medical school. Next, they go to residency. That’s three years of hands-on internal medicine training in a hospital. Then they spend two more years learning about pulmonary disease.
After they finish training, the specialists can become board-certified when they pass a test from the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Some pulmonologists focus on certain diseases. These could be, for example, asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Others care for specific groups, such as children or older adults. Or they might take care of very ill patients in the hospital, some of whom need a ventilator to breathe.
Why Would You Need to See a Pulmonologist?
Your family doctor can treat common breathing issues. But you might need to see a specialist when your breathing problems are complex or when it’s not clear what’s causing them.
If you have any of these symptoms, consider asking your family doctor if you should see a specialist:
- A cough that’s severe or has lasted more than three weeks
- Chest pain or tightness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
- Difficulty breathing, especially while you’re exercising
- Repeated colds or bronchitis that impacts your breathing
- Problems controlling your asthma or identifying what triggers it
What Diseases Do Pulmonologists Treat?
A pulmonologist can treat many breathing-related conditions, including:
- Cystic fibrosis (an inherited disease in which mucus builds up in the lungs and other organs)
- COPD (also sometimes called emphysema or chronic bronchitis in which breathing problems worsen over time)
- Lung cancer
- Pulmonary fibrosis (in which the lung’s tissues become damaged and scarred)
- Work-related lung diseases (such as those affecting workers exposed to asbestos or coal dust)
What Can I Expect During a Visit?
First, you’ll answer questions about your symptoms and have a physical exam. The doctor might need tests to make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. The tests might include blood work and a chest X-ray or a CT scan. Your pulmonologist could also recommend a bronchoscopy. In this exam, the doctor inserts a tube down your throat and windpipe. The tube has a light and small camera attached to give a closer look at your lungs and airways.
Pulmonologists also measure how much oxygen your body is getting. And they test lung function. To measure your oxygen levels, the doctor will place an electronic device -- called a pulse oximeter -- on your finger. In another test, called spirometry, you’ll blow into a tube that’s connected to a computer. That test will measure how well the air is flowing through your lungs.
What Treatments Can a Pulmonologist Offer?
Your pulmonologist might work with a surgeon if you need an operation. For example, you could need removal of a lung tumor. But, more often, pulmonologists use medication and other nonsurgical treatments. They might suggest that you try breathing exercises to improve shortness of breath. They could refer you to counseling if your symptoms cause you anxiety or depression.
For instance, if you have COPD, your doctor might recommend medication to open your airways. She might also prescribe drugs to cut the mucus in your lungs. But along with these things, the doctor could also suggest supplemental oxygen, breathing techniques, and counseling.
Regardless of your diagnosis, your pulmonologist can work with you to develop the best treatment plan.
American College of Physicians: “Pulmonary Disease.”
American Lung Association: “How Is COPD Treated,” “How Serious Is COPD,” “Know Your Providers: What Does a Pulmonologist Do?” “Learn About Cystic Fibrosis,” “Managing Your COPD Medications,” “Pulse Oximetry.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Occupational Lung Diseases,” “What is bronchoscopy?”
Mayo Clinic: “Pulmonary fibrosis.”
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “COPD,” “How the Lungs Work,” “Pulmonary Function Tests,” “Pulmonary Rehabilitation.”