7 Reasons to See a Pulmonologist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Was this helpful?
Doctor Listening The Patient's Lungs

A pulmonologist specializes in caring for people with breathing problems and lung diseases. They also assess the health of the entire respiratory tract, including the trachea, nose and throat. Most people see a pulmonologist, also known as a lung doctor, when their primary care doctor refers them for evaluation or treatment. However, you may see this doctor if you are in the hospital for a serious lung condition. Here is a look at some of the common reasons you may need to visit a pulmonologist.

1. Asthma

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease. It affects people of all ages, but most commonly occurs in children. People with asthma have reactive airways—their airways narrow, tighten and inflame in response to certain triggers, such as pet dander, pollen, cigarette smoke, and physical activity:

Symptoms of an asthma attack include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Treatment includes long-term control medicines to manage the disease and quick-relief or rescue medicines to treat a flare.

2. COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

COPD includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It typically affects people who have smoked heavily for many years. COPD is a progressive disease and a major cause of disability. With COPD, people have a hard time breathing due to chronic changes in the lungs and airways. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, and a chronic cough, often producing lots of mucus.

Stopping smoking is vital for managing COPD. Medications help keep symptoms under control. Some people require supplemental oxygen to perform daily activities or while they sleep.

3. Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis—or CF—affects the body’s secretory glands, which make mucus or sweat. This includes glands in the lungs, upper respiratory tract, digestive tract, sexual organs, and skin. It is a genetic disease—children inherit faulty genes from their parents. In the respiratory tract, symptoms result from having thick, sticky mucus. Symptoms include a frequent cough that brings up thick mucus and recurrent respiratory infections, which can cause lung damage with time. Because lung disease can become severe and life-threatening, a pulmonologist should treat CF.

4. Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women. Smoking is the number one risk factor for developing it. In fact, 90% of lung cancer cases are due to smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes.

Lung cancer tumors can grow without causing pain or discomfort. Lung cancer is usually quite advanced by the time symptoms are noticeable. They may include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse, or changes in a chronic cough

  • Chest pain that worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing

  • Coughing up blood

  • Hoarseness

  • Shortness of breath

A pulmonologist and oncologist work together with patients to manage lung symptoms during and after cancer treatment.

5. Lung Infections

Your primary care doctor can usually handle simple infections, such as bronchitis. However, complex lung infections often require a pulmonologist’s expertise. This includes such infections as tuberculosis and pneumonia. It also includes bronchitis if it is difficult to treat or you have other chronic diseases, such as COPD or heart disease.

6. Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery in the lung. Typically, the blood clot develops in a vein in the leg. It breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, where it becomes lodged. Symptoms can include trouble breathing, chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing, which may bring up blood. PE can be fatal without emergency treatment. People with PE may need to continue medications and other treatments for six months or longer. Pulmonologists are best qualified to assess and manage any breathing issues following PE.

7. Sleep Apnea

If you have sleep apnea, your breathing stops several times during the night. The pauses can last seconds to minutes. Breathing usually resumes with a snort or choking sound. It’s a common sleep disorder, but most people who have it don’t know it. There are several causes of sleep apnea. They all result in less oxygen getting into your lungs and then into your blood. Most people can manage sleep apnea with special mouthpieces and breathing devices. Some people may benefit from surgery.

Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on your symptom history, a physical exam, and possibly a sleep evaluation.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 20
View All Lungs, Breathing and Respiration Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Asthma. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/asthma
  2. COPD. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd
  3. Cystic Fibrosis. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cf
  4. Lung Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/lungcancer/
  5. Pulmonary Disease. American College of Physicians. http://www.acponline.org/patients_families/about_internal_medicine/subspecialties/pulmonology/
  6. Pulmonary Embolism. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pe
  7. Sleep Apnea. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea