If you have a cough that lasts for a long time, or you have trouble breathing, your regular healthcare provider may suggest you see a pulmonologist. This specialist is an expert in diagnosing and treating lung-related health conditions. This is important especially when the condition may need long-term management.
A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in lung conditions. A pulmonologist diagnoses and treats diseases of the respiratory system. You might hear these healthcare providers called lung doctors, lung specialists or chest doctors.
In addition to your lungs, your respiratory system includes your nose, throat, trachea, airways, muscles and blood vessels.
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The difference, basically, is the area of specialization. The cardiologist is an expert on the heart, while the pulmonologist is an expert on the lungs. These areas of your body are closely linked, though, and work better together when both your heart and lungs are healthy. If you have a disease like pulmonary hypertension, you may need to see both types of doctors since both heart and the lungs are involved.
To become a pulmonologist, you must first get a bachelor’s degree and then pass the Medical College Admissions Test in order to get into a medical school. It usually takes about four years to earn a medical degree.
Pulmonary medicine is a subspecialty of internal medicine. To be a pulmonologist, you’ll complete a basic three-year residency program in internal medicine, followed by two years of a fellowship in pulmonary disease. You can become board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.
If you want to be board certified in pulmonary disease and critical care, you’ll have to complete a three-year fellowship that covers both areas. The American Board of Internal Medicine can grant certifications in each area. Critical care involves serious illnesses treated in intensive care units in hospitals. This specialization requires the healthcare provider to know all about these illnesses, the devices that treat the illnesses, making estimates on disease prognosis (outlook) and issues like making end-of-life decisions.
Pulmonologists treat conditions of the respiratory system, especially of the lungs. These conditions can be caused by things like inflammation, tissue overgrowth and infections. Many of these illnesses may require long-term, even lifelong, treatment plans. Your pulmonologist will work with your primary care doctor, and possibly other specialists, on treatment plans.
Some illnesses treated or managed by pulmonologists include, but aren’t limited to:
A pulmonologist can also treat occupation-related lung diseases like:
A pulmonologist can diagnose and treat diseases of the respiratory system. They might have certain areas that they specialize in, like critical care, asthma or sleep medicine. They might also specialize in treating children (a pediatric pulmonologist) or the elderly (a geriatric pulmonologist).
If you have symptoms that your regular healthcare provider isn’t able to help you with, or if they think you would be better off seeing a specialist, they might refer you to a pulmonologist. Some of these signs and symptoms might include:
If you’ve already been diagnosed with a respiratory condition, you may continue having scheduled appointments to manage your illness.
If it’s your first appointment with a pulmonologist, you should be ready to fill out a medical history and have a physical examination. During this time, you can talk with your healthcare provider about the reasons you’re there and explain the details of your symptoms. You might find it helpful to come prepared with paper and pen to provide information like how long symptoms have lasted and to remember questions you want your healthcare provider to answer.
Your healthcare provider might order some tests to help with diagnosis and treatment. These might include:
If you do have an illness that needs long-term management, you’ll want to continue keeping your appointments as scheduled and to follow recommendations. You may have to repeat these tests later so your healthcare provider knows how well treatment is working.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You know how important breathing is, even though you might not think about it until you have some type of problem that interferes with breathing freely. You might start off with an issue that’s simply annoying, like a chronic cough. However, it’s usually best to get things checked out, especially if your healthcare provider refers you to a pulmonologist. A pulmonologist can help you in many ways and will work with other healthcare providers on your healthcare team to help you make the best decisions for your health.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/21/2021.
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