A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in lung health and breathing problems. They diagnose and treat respiratory conditions, such as cystic fibrosis or pulmonary hypertension.

Healthcare professionals can treat many respiratory problems, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, if a person is experiencing complex breathing issues or their body does not respond to treatment as expected, a doctor may refer them to a pulmonologist.

This article explains what pulmonologists do, what conditions they treat, and more.

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Pulmonologists treat various medical conditions that affect the respiratory system.

These range from infections and chronic immune conditions to cancer and progressive conditions, including:

  • Asthma: Asthma is a chronic condition in which inflammation restricts the airways and causes wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing.
  • Bronchitis: This refers to inflammation and swelling of the bronchial tubes. This can be due to viral or bacterial infection or exposure to irritants such as dust, chemical fumes, or cigarette smoke.
  • COPD: This includes progressive conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which damage or block the airways and air sacs in the lungs.
  • Cystic fibrosis: This is an inherited condition in which the body produces thick, sticky mucus that can clog the lungs, airways, and pancreas. People with cystic fibrosis have a higher risk of developing persistent lung infections.
  • Emphysema: This is a part of COPD. This condition damages the walls of the air sacs in the lungs, which can cause the air sacs to collapse or stretch beyond their regular capacity.
  • Interstitial lung disease: This refers to a group of conditions that cause scarring, or fibrosis, of the lungs. Fibrosis makes the lungs less elastic, which makes it difficult to breathe.
  • Occupational lung disease: This refers to several respiratory issues that occur due to long-term exposure to irritating or toxic substances in a work environment. Substances that can cause occupational lung disease include asbestos, crystalline silica, mold, and chemical fumes.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: This condition causes abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries that supply the lungs. Pulmonary hypertension typically develops due to other underlying conditions, such as blood clots in the lungs, emphysema, heart failure, or liver disease.
  • Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea occurs when a person repeatedly stops breathing for a short time during the night. People with sleep apnea may also experience chronic snoring, daytime fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. The condition can lead to other complications such as depression, high blood pressure, or heart attack.
  • Tuberculosis (TB): This occurs when Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria enter the lungs. TB can cause persistent coughing, chest pain, and coughing up bloody phlegm. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), TB is the 13th leading cause of death worldwide.

A pulmonologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the respiratory system. This system includes all the organs, airways, tissues, and muscles that bring oxygen into and remove carbon dioxide from the body. The respiratory system includes the following:

  • nasal cavity
  • mouth
  • throat, or pharynx
  • voice box, or larynx
  • trachea, or windpipe
  • lungs
  • bronchi, where the windpipe divides to allow air into each lung
  • bronchioles, which are tiny tubes spreading farther into the lungs
  • alveoli, which are tiny air sacs inside the lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide happen
  • pleura, which is a membrane that surrounds the lungs, separating them from the chest wall

Pulmonologists diagnose and treat respiratory conditions that result from:

  • infection
  • inflammation
  • structural irregularities
  • tumors
  • autoimmune conditions

Pulmonologists and cardiologists often collaborate when diagnosing and treating conditions.

Some respiratory and cardiovascular conditions share symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing. Other respiratory conditions, including COPD and interstitial lung disease, can affect the cardiovascular system. The specialists work together to determine the best treatment plan for the person concerned.

Pulmonologists also coordinate people’s treatment plans with interdisciplinary healthcare teams of other specialists, nurses, pathologists, and respiratory therapists.

Pulmonology is a medical specialty, meaning people must pass additional exams before they can practice it. They must already have completed a 3-year residency in internal medicine before starting the 2-year pulmonary disease training, or fellowship.

For people who want to combine their pulmonary disease fellowship with critical care programs, the training lasts 3 years.

Pulmonologists use various tests and procedures to diagnose and treat different respiratory conditions. They may use imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, or ultrasounds to look for structural irregularities in the lungs and chest area. These tests can also show signs of infection or masses on the lungs that may be cancerous.

If a doctor has concerns about the results of imaging tests, they may recommend a biopsy. During this procedure, a doctor will remove a small tissue sample to examine in a laboratory. This test can show signs of inflammation, infection, or cancer.

Lung function tests, also known as pulmonary function tests, show pulmonologists how well a person’s lungs work.

Some respiratory conditions, including asthma and COPD, restrict a person’s airways, making it harder for them to use their full lung capacity. Doctors may recommend a spirometry test to measure a person’s lung capacity and how air flows in and out of the lungs.

Doctors may recommend other lung function tests to measure air volume in the lungs, check how easily oxygen enters the blood, or test for nitric oxide in the breath.

Pulmonologists may conduct sleep studies for some respiratory disorders such as sleep apnea. During a sleep study, or polysomnogram, special equipment records a person’s brain and muscle activity, as well as their eye movement, heart rate, and breathing rate while they sleep.

Some early symptoms of respiratory conditions may not seem significant. However, the American Lung Association (ALA) stresses the importance of recognizing the warning signs. Early treatment may stop certain conditions from progressing into something more serious.

The warning signs for lung disease include:

  • chronic, or persistent, cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks
  • being short of breath after little or no exertion
  • producing excessive phlegm or mucus
  • labored breathing, or feeling unable to catch a breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing up blood
  • unexplained chest pains, particularly when breathing in or coughing

A person who is experiencing any of these symptoms should contact a healthcare professional. The healthcare professional may then recommend the person consults a pulmonologist.

The simplest way to find a pulmonologist is to ask for a referral from a healthcare professional.

Health insurance companies keep lists of recommended specialists, so a person can check with them before booking an appointment.

The ALA has information about finding financial support to pay for specialist treatment.

The ALA also has a free helpline where people can find information and support. Call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872 and press 2). They also have a live chat option.

A pulmonologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating respiratory conditions, including emphysema, bronchitis, and TB.

Pulmonologists use imaging tests and lung function tests to help diagnose respiratory conditions.

A doctor may refer someone to a pulmonologist if they have persistent or worsening respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, or a cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks.