What is a pulmonologist?

a pulmonologist is a physician who specializes in the respiratory system. From the windpipe to the lungs, if your complaint involves the lungs or any part of the respiratory system, a pulmonologist is the doc you want to solve the problem.

Pulmonology is a medical field of study within internal medicine. These doctors go through the same training as an internist. They receive their degree, complete an internal medicine residency, then several years as a fellow focused primarily on pulmonology and often includes critical care and sleep medicine. After that, they have to take and pass specialty exams, and only then are they able to take patients as a Board-Certified pulmonologists.

While the respiratory system is a specialty in itself, pulmonologists can specialize even further. Some of these doctors focus on certain diseases, like asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, and COPD, while others treat unique demographics, like pediatric patients or geriatric patients.

Because many lung and heart conditions present similar symptoms, pulmonologists often work with cardiologists while diagnosing patients. You’ll also see them frequently in hospital settings. Patients that need life support or manual ventilation to breathe will have a pulmonologist overseeing that element of their care.

How a pulmonologist can help you

A pulmonologist works with patients facing serious or chronic breathing problems. While primary care doctors can handle mild or short-term conditions, such as those caused by a cold or respiratory infection, you’ll need to see a pulmonologist to diagnose, treat and manage more complex illnesses that primarily affect the lungs.

If you’re struggling with respiratory disease, accurate diagnosis is the first step. A pulmonologist uses procedures such as spirometry, bloodwork, chest X-rays, CT scans, bronchoscopies, and sleep studies to diagnose chronic lung disease. Your pulmonologist may ask you to repeat these tests even if you have already completed them to confirm the results.

Once you have a diagnosis, a pulmonologist will create a treatment plan. If you require surgery, that will likely be done by a surgeon who specializes in the heart and lungs. Beyond that, a pulmonologist will use medications, therapies, and pulmonary rehabilitation to help you return to wellness.

Because lung diseases are often debilitating and require long-term care, pulmonologists are well-versed in working with you and your family and healthcare team. They should be able to adapt treatment plans to work with your situation and should be able to coordinate your care with other important members of the team. Examples include respiratory therapists, asthma educators, pulmonary rehab programs, and local support groups such as the American Lung Association’s Better Breathers Clubs. This can help you and your loved ones understand your condition and your path forward.

When should you see a pulmonologist?

A simple cough associated with allergies or cold shouldn’t send you looking for a pulmonary specialist. Urgent care or your primary care doctor should be your first stop, and then on to an allergist or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.

You should see a pulmonologist if that cough persists for more than 3 weeks, or if it becomes severe. This should be done in consultation with your primary care doctor.
When else should you see a pulmonologist? The below symptoms can be related to a lung condition and a pulmonary specialist may be helpful:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • Difficulty breathing, especially during exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Recurring or chronic bronchitis or colds that impact your respiratory system
  • Asthma that isn’t well-controlled, or has unidentified triggers

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