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Faces of Healthcare: What Is a Pulmonologist?

Overview

what is a pulmonologist

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
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Pulmonologist

What is a pulmonologist?

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

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

In some instances, this extends to the cardiovascular system. Certain conditions, such as pulmonary vascular disease, can 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.

I most value how I can improve the quality of life of seriously ill patients with chronic diseases. If I can’t get them back to normal, I can at least help them manage the symptoms. I enjoy how I get to build longer-term relationships with my patients. Because many of them suffer from chronic diseases, I get to know them closely.
— Albert Rizzo, M.D.

Pulmonology

What is pulmonology?

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

Subspecialties of pulmonology can 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
  • 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
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Education

Education and training requirements

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.

As with many other medical students, I had a lot of preconceived notions of what I wanted to be, [such as] a pediatrician [or] a surgeon. I eventually chose to do internal medicine because of the breadth. When doing my residency, I particularly enjoyed my rotations in pulmonology and critical care. I liked the intersection between technology and medicine, as well as the wide variety of cases you see in the field.
— Albert Rizzo, M.D.

Conditions

What conditions do pulmonologists treat?

Conditions pulmonologists commonly treat include:

  • asthma
  • bronchiectasis, which occurs when your lungs can’t clear mucus
  • bronchitis, which happens when you have inflamed mucous membranes
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which causes an airflow blockage
  • emphysema, which happens when the alveoli in your lungs are damaged
  • interstitial lung diseases, which affect the space and tissue around the alveoli
  • occupational lung diseases, which can occur due to the inhalation of dusts, chemicals, or proteins
  • obstructive sleep apnea, which causes your breathing to slow or stop entirely when you’re sleeping

Check out: When asthma leads to bronchitis »

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Procedures

What procedures do pulmonologists perform?

Pulmonologists can perform exams and tests to help determine a lung-related diagnosis. This can include a:

  • CT scan to get detailed images of the bones, muscles, fat organs, and blood vessels in your chest
  • chest fluoroscopy to see how well your lungs are functioning
  • chest ultrasound to examine the organs and other chest structures
  • lobectomy to remove one of the lobes of your lungs
  • pleural biopsy to remove a small tissue sample from the pleura, which is the membrane that surrounds your lungs
  • pulmonary function test to see how well your lungs are working
  • pulse oximetry test to determine the oxygen saturation level in your blood
  • transplantation to remove the diseased lung and replace it with a healthy lung
  • thoracentesis 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 them diagnose sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
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When to see a pulmonologist

When should you see a pulmonologist?

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

Keep reading: Asthma vs. COPD: How to tell the difference »

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