Pulmonology is an area of medicine that focuses on the health of the respiratory system. Pulmonologists treat everything from asthma to tuberculosis.

What is the respiratory system?

The respiratory system includes the organs that help you breathe. The three major parts of this system are the airway, the lungs, and the respiratory muscles.

The airway includes the:

  • nose
  • mouth
  • pharynx
  • larynx
  • trachea
  • bronchi
  • bronchioles
  • alveoli

You use several muscles during respiration. The most notable is the diaphragm. The other muscles are categorized in groups, including:

  • intercostal muscles, which help with inhalation
  • accessory muscles, which help with inhalation but don’t play a primary role
  • exhalation muscles, which help with forceful or active exhalation

These specialists diagnose and treat conditions that affect the respiratory system in men and women, as well as children. Pulmonologists have expertise in the following types of respiratory disorders:

  • infectious
  • structural
  • inflammatory
  • neoplastic, which means having to do with a tumor
  • autoimmune

In some instances, this extends to the cardiovascular system. Certain conditions, such as pulmonary vascular disease, can first affect the respiratory system but go on to affect other organs in the body.

A pulmonologist may work in their own office or as part of a multidisciplinary practice. They can also work in hospital settings, particularly in intensive care units.

Pulmonology is a field of medicine that focuses specifically on diagnosing and treating disorders of the respiratory system.

Subspecialties of pulmonology include:

  • interstitial lung disease, which focuses on lung diseases marked by persistent inflammation and scarring
  • interventional pulmonology, which employs multidisciplinary care to treat airway disorders, lung cancer, and pleural diseases
  • lung transplantation, management before and after surgery
  • neuromuscular disease, which refers to conditions that occur due to respiratory muscle failure
  • obstructive lung disease, which involves airway narrowing or obstruction
  • sleep-disordered breathing

To become a pulmonologist, you must earn a four-year college degree. From there, you must complete a four-year medical school program. You then must complete a three-year training program, or residency, in internal medicine.

After you complete your residency, you must complete a two- to three-year fellowship. This allows you to get additional specialized training in pulmonology. You must pass a specialty board certification exam after you complete your fellowship.

Conditions pulmonologists commonly treat include:

Pulmonologists can use and interpret exams and tests to help determine a lung-related diagnosis. These may include the following:

  • CT scan to get detailed images of the bones, muscles, fat organs, and blood vessels in your chest
  • chest fluoroscopy, an X-ray test to see how well your lungs are functioning
  • chest ultrasound to examine the organs and other chest structures
  • pleural biopsy to remove a small tissue sample from the pleura, which is the membrane that surrounds your lungs
  • pulmonary function test, a breathing test to see how well your lungs are working
  • pulse oximetry test to determine the oxygen saturation level in your blood
  • thoracentesis to remove and sample fluid from around your lungs
  • chest tube to remove air or fluid from around your lungs
  • bronchoscopy to examine your airway and determine if you have any issues in your trachea, lower airways, throat, or larynx
  • sleep study to help diagnose sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea

In the case of more serious lung diseases and conditions, a pulmonologist may refer you to a chest surgeon for procedures, such as a lobectomy to remove a portion of a diseased lung or a lung transplant.

If you’re having any unusual symptoms, you should meet with your primary care doctor. They will perform a medical exam and assess your overall condition. They may refer you to a pulmonologist if you:

  • have difficulty breathing
  • have a persistent cough
  • regularly cough up blood or mucus
  • smoke
  • have unexplained weight loss
  • have trouble exercising due to breathing problems