What Does a Pulmonologist Do & When Should You See One

Your primary care provider might refer you to a pulmonologist if you have a lung-related health condition. How do you know if you have a lung-related health condition, though, and how do you know when it’s time to see a pulmonologist? 

Today, Carda is here to discuss pulmonologists, including what they do, when you should see one, and what conditions they specialize in treating. Read on to learn what to expect when it comes to a pulmonology visit and how to support your lung health with Carda. 

What Is a Pulmonologist?

A pulmonologist, also known as a lung specialist, is a doctor for your lungs. Pulmonologists diagnose and treat conditions that affect your respiratory system, which includes the organs and tissues that help you breathe.

 In addition to your lungs, the respiratory system also includes your airways and blood vessels, as well as your mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, trachea, and bronchial tubes.

What Does a Pulmonologist Do?

A pulmonologist usually works in a hospital, often in the intensive care unit. However, some pulmonologists work in a private practice or as part of a multidisciplinary group. 

Because your heart and lung functions closely overlap, pulmonologists will often work alongside cardiologists to help treat lung conditions that also affect the heart.

What Conditions Can Pulmonologists Treat?

Board-certified pulmonologists can have a subspecialty in specific conditions that affect the respiratory system, such as in asthma or critical care. Pulmonologists often also work in sleep laboratories to perform sleep studies and treat related respiratory disorders like sleep apnea. 

They might also specialize in a specific age group because your lungs function differently and are susceptible to different risk factors at different stages of your life. A pediatric pulmonologist specializes in children, and a geriatric pulmonologist specializes in the elderly.

When Should You See a Pulmonologist?

If you have a common respiratory issue, such as a short-term cough, your primary care doctor might feel comfortable treating this as within their medical care scope. However, for more complicated respiratory conditions or disorders, they may refer you to a pulmonologist. 

Signs and symptoms that usually warrant a referral to a pulmonologist include a long-term chronic cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, asthma, sleep apnea, or frequent dizziness. Your healthcare provider might also refer you to a pulmonologist if you have a family history of respiratory conditions.

What Conditions Can a Pulmonologist Address?

A pulmonologist can address any condition that affects your respiratory system, whether it's a short-term respiratory infection, a critical condition or trauma, or a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment plans. 


Asthma occurs when your airways narrow and swell. Sometimes this comes with excess mucus production as well. 

Asthma can lead as coughing, shortness of breath, breathing problems and difficulty breathing, and wheezing. Asthma is a chronic condition whose symptoms range from mild to severe. Triggers such as exercise or air pollutants can sometimes cause asthma attacks. 

A pulmonologist can help you manage your asthma symptoms with an asthma action plan. The plan may include medications, like an inhaler with corticosteroids, that you take daily to help keep your asthma under control. 

Bronchitis (Chronic or Acute)

Bronchitis occurs when there is inflammation in the lining of your bronchial tubes, which are the breathing passageways that transport air to and from your lungs. 

Acute or short-term bronchitis is far more common than chronic bronchitis and often improves in seven to ten days. Acute bronchitis is also known as a chest cold and is usually caused by a respiratory infection. There are some cases where the cold does not resolve on its own, however, and your provider may refer you to a pulmonologist if your cough persists for weeks. 

Chronic inflammation occurs when there is long-term inflammation. In order for a person's bronchitis to be labeled as chronic, they must have a chronic persistent cough and mucus for a minimum of three months out of the year, for two years in a row. 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is the name for a group of lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. While bronchitis involves damage to the bronchi, emphysema involves damage to the alveoli or the air sacs that regulate the exchange of oxygen-rich air into and out of your lungs. 

With emphysema, alveoli often burst, creating larger air spaces that decrease the lung surface area. Emphysema can cause shortness of breath that gradually worsens over time. A pulmonologist can help manage the progression of emphysema or chronic bronchitis as part of a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treatment plan. 

Lung Cancer

Cancer that begins in the lungs often does not have symptoms in its earlier stages. However, as the disease progresses, signs and symptoms can include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, bone pain, headaches, or coughing up blood. 

Smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer. A family history of lung cancer, as well as radiation therapy or exposure to carcinogens, are other risk factors for lung cancer. 

A pulmonologist can help you manage and treat lung cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or targeted therapy with tested drugs. 

Pulmonary Embolism

Also known as a lung blood clot, a pulmonary embolism happens when there is a sudden blockage in a lung artery. The blood clot usually comes from a deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the leg that separates. The broken-off blood clot then travels through the bloodstream until it reaches the lung arteries. 

A pulmonary embolism requires immediate medical attention. Treatment can include medication or procedures to eliminate the blood clot. 

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is sleep disorder that occurs when breathing patterns experience large gaps. This can cause a person to snore loudly or feel fatigued despite getting a good night's sleep. 

With sleep apnea, breathing stops and starts consistently to produce noticeable gaps in breathing. Many people learn that they have sleep apnea after someone notices that they stopped breathing in their sleep. 

A pulmonologist can help you manage your sleep apnea symptoms with many different treatment options like lifestyle changes, therapies, or medical procedures. 


Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that affect the lungs. It is contagious and often spreads when a person coughs or sneezes because this expels tiny droplets from their breath into the air. 

Symptoms include a fever, fatigue, and a cough. In later stages, a person can cough up blood or mucus and may experience chest pain and unexplained weight loss. Treatment usually involves a drug regimen overseen by a pulmonologist. 

How Can You Find a Pulmonologist?

There are several ways to find a pulmonologist, including by referral, insurance plan database, or by zip code. Let’s explore each option below. 

Get a Referral

The most common way to find a pulmonologist is to get a referral from your primary care provider. They might refer you themselves, or you can ask for a referral if you think you need to see a pulmonologist. Some insurance plans require that you have a referral in order to cover your visit. 

Use Your Insurance Plan Database If Available

Another way to find a pulmonologist in-network with your insurance plan is to log on to your insurance account online. Once logged in, you can use their search database to show you pulmonologists in your area that are within your insurance plan network. 

Search By Zip Code

Instead of using your insurance plan database, you can also search online by zip code to see what pulmonologists are in your area. Once you find one, it’s always a good idea to check with your insurance provider to make sure they will cover the visit. 

What Can You Expect During a Pulmonologist Appointment?

If it's your first visit, expect to answer a lot of questions about your family medical history and personal medical history. 

Your pulmonologist will probably ask detailed questions about your symptoms and then conduct a physical exam. They also might order extra tests or labs, including blood work, a spirometry test, pulmonary function test, chest X-ray, or a CT scan. 

Before your pulmonology appointment, consider writing down a list of questions and concerns. 

The Bottom Line

A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in treating conditions that affect your respiratory system. They can treat many conditions that affect your lungs, including asthma, bronchitis, COPD, lung cancer, pulmonary embolisms, sleep apnea, or tuberculosis. 

Pulmonologists often work alongside cardiologists because conditions that affect the lungs also commonly affect the heart. If you have a condition affecting your cardiovascular system and are considering seeing a pulmonologist, Carda can help. We offer an at-home cardiac rehab program that can help you accomplish your recovery goals and work towards improved cardiac and pulmonary wellness. 


What to Expect at a Pulmonologist Visit | Tufts Medical Center Community Care

How the Lungs Work - The Respiratory System | NHLBI, NIH

What Is a Pulmonologist: When To See One & What To Expect | Cleveland Clinic

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