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Many of us take roughly 20,000 breaths a day without a second thought. For some, though, breathing can be difficult and even painful. When a cough or shortness of breath doesn’t improve, you may be referred to a pulmonologist.

What does a pulmonologist do?

A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating respiratory system conditions, especially of the lungs. The respiratory system is a network of organs and tissues that work to help you breathe while also removing waste gases. The airways, lungs and blood vessels, and muscles and bones are the major parts of this system.  

Pulmonology is a subspecialty of internal medicine. To become a pulmonologist, one must complete medical school, an internal medicine residency, and a pulmonary medicine fellowship that can include critical care and sleep medicine. After the fellowship, one can become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Why would you see a pulmonologist?

Your primary care provider can refer you to a pulmonologist for chronic or serious breathing issues. “People should see a pulmonologist for any episode of shortness of breath or cough that does not completely resolve or is a frequent problem,” says Summit Health pulmonologist Daniel Laurie, MD.

“We treat all causes of shortness of breath, wheezing, low oxygen levels, chronic cough, and certain causes of chest pain,” says Dr. Laurie. These symptoms may signal conditions such as:

  • Asthma – the narrowing and swelling of the airways, sometimes with excess mucus production
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – progressive lung diseases that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema
  • Bacterial or viral chest infections – including pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Pulmonary embolus – a blood clot that forms in a blood vessel and travels to a lung artery, blocking blood supply to the lung. The blockage is called an embolism.
  • Interstitial lung disease – progressive lung diseases characterized by scarring, or fibrosis, of the lungs
  • Lung cancer

Pulmonologists treat these and many other conditions, working with other specialists such as cardiology when a multispecialty approach is needed.

What can I expect at a pulmonologist visit?

Your first visit with a pulmonologist will include a review of your medical history and symptoms you’re experiencing and a physical examination. “Data we analyze carefully include any prior chest imaging (X-ray, CT scan), prior lung function testing, prior echocardiograms, and prior blood tests,” Dr. Laurie notes.

“Based on the history, examination and data, we can make a likely diagnosis and initiate treatment, or we may require further testing to clarify the diagnosis,” he continues. Additional testing might include blood work, chest imaging, or pulmonary function tests such as spirometry, which measures airflow in and out of your lungs.

At Summit Health, this detailed and structured approach to evaluating patients is called the Breathe Easy Program.

Pulmonology treatment

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your pulmonologist will develop a treatment plan for your condition. Treatment may include medications, respiratory therapy, or supplemental oxygen to help with symptoms. If surgery is required, your pulmonologist will coordinate with the appropriate surgeon.

Since many lung disorders require long-term care, pulmonologists often work with patients’ primary care doctors and other specialists on treatment plans.

How can I protect my lung health?

Respiratory health is essential to your overall health. To keep your respiratory system healthy:

  • Don’t smoke. Smoking is a major cause of lung cancer and COPD. Among other issues, smoking can also cause smoker’s cough, which results from a build-up of toxins in your airways. Smoker’s cough is irritating and can be painful, and it can become chronic.

    Dr. Laurie mentions Summit Health offers patients help with quitting. “The Stop Smoking Now program is an affordable, effective, one-to-one counseling service, which can be delivered via telemedicine,” he says. “We offer evidence-based strategies that help you overcome barriers to smoking cessation.”
  • Make time for physical activity. Your heart and lungs work harder during physical activity to feed your muscles more oxygen. Regular physical activity improves your heart, lung, and muscle fitness over time – and your overall well-being.

    There are many ways to get moving, no matter your age or fitness level. “Walking at a moderate pace for 20 minutes three times a week is good for lung health,” Dr. Laurie offers as an example.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants and know your triggers. Exposure to secondhand smoke, chemicals, and radon, among other pollutants, can damage your airways. Exercise indoors if the air quality outside is poor.

    “For asthmatics, it’s important to avoid known triggers, which might include certain changes in weather or humidity or certain allergens,” says Dr. Laurie.
  • Prevent infection. Get recommended vaccinations to protect yourself from severe illness; all adults should receive an annual flu shot and their recommended COVID-19 booster. In addition, those with lung conditions such as asthma or COPD should receive vaccinations against pneumococcal pneumonia. In order to prevent the spread of germs, wash your hands often and practice good oral hygiene.

    “In circumstances of high risk of transmission of respiratory viruses such as COVID-19, an appropriate mask is advised,” adds Dr. Laurie. Even after the pandemic has passed, consider wearing a mask when in crowds during cold and flu season.
  • Get screened. As with most cancers, early detection is key to successful treatment. Find out if you should have lung cancer screening.

Pulmonology at Summit Health

We offer multiple specialists in New Jersey and New York who deliver comprehensive pulmonology care.