When Should You See a Pulmonologist?
Pulmonology is a subspecialty of internal medicine that focuses on respiratory health. The specialist called in this area of medicine is called a pulmonologist. Pulmonologists are specialists who diagnose and treat different conditions that are associated with the respiratory system of men, women, and children. In some cases, their specialty also covers the human cardiovascular system. There are also other medical conditions, like in the case of pulmonary vascular disease, which starts affecting the respiratory system and then continue to affect other organs or areas in the body. Pulmonologists may provide their diagnostic and therapeutic services at private clinics or offices or as part of a multidisciplinary team. A pulmonologist also works in a hospital setting, specifically in the ICU (intensive care unit).
Reasons to See a Pulmonologist
If asthma control is not achieved under the care of a primary care provider, a pulmonologist may be referred. Pulmonologists are also needed when patients have a newly diagnosed respiratory condition, which requires further assessment and evaluation for its diagnosis and treatment.
The following are some of the reasons why you should see a pulmonologist:
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that affects a person's airways, which are tubes that carry air into the lungs and outside of the body. When a person has asthma, the linings of the airways become inflamed, which makes them strongly react to substances that a person is allergic to. Allergens include pollen, pet dander, cigarette smoke, or strenuous physical activities.
The airways tend to get narrower with the lungs getting less air when a person is exposed to certain allergens. For this reason, symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness develop, particularly at night and early in the morning. When these symptoms become worse, it is called as an asthma attack. People can also die from a severe asthma attack, so it is very important to control or manage the disease with long-term treatment or rescue medicines from a flare.
2. Lung Infections
Lung infections affect the lungs and cause breathing difficulties. Some of the most common lung infections, such as bronchitis, can be easily diagnosed and treated by primary care providers. However, complex lung infections require the expertise of a pulmonologist for its management and treatment. A pulmonologist is usually needed when patients develop lung infections, such as bronchitis with COPD or heart disease, pneumonia, or tuberculosis.
3. Cystic Fibrosis (CF)
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects the cells that make sweat, mucus, and digestive juices. It usually affects the cells in the upper respiratory tract, lungs, skin, digestive system, and sexual organs.
Normally, fluids that are secreted in the body are thin and slippery. However, people who have cystic fibrosis have thick and sticky secretions due to a defective gene. Instead of functioning as the body's lubricant, these secretions become problematic and cause congestion in the ducts, tubes, and passageways, particularly in the pancreas and lungs.
People with cystic fibrosis usually experience symptoms, such as frequent coughing that brings up thick and sticky mucus, as well as recurrent lung infections, which eventually cause lung damage. Since lung disease can become a life-threatening condition, those who have cystic fibrosis should see a pulmonologist.
4. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammatory lung disease that causes symptoms, such as coughing, difficulty breathing, wheezing, and sputum production due to airflow obstruction.
COPD is usually caused by chronic exposure to irritating gases or particle pollution, especially from cigarette smoke. Individuals with COPD have an increased risk of developing other lung conditions, including lung cancer and heart disease.
Two of the most common respiratory conditions that contribute to COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Although there is no cure for COPD, its symptoms can be managed through treatment, which includes medications, oxygen therapy, and even surgery to help patients breathe easier.
5. Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is one of the leading cancers that affect both men and women. The most common risk factor associated with lung cancer is smoking. As a matter of fact, smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars account for 90 percent of lung cancer cases.
Lung cancer can also be asymptomatic at first and when symptoms appear, the cancer is often in the advanced stage. The symptoms of lung cancer may include the following:
- A chronic cough that gets worse
- Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)
- Hoarseness (abnormal voice changes)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain that gets worse with coughing, deep breathing, sneezing, or laughing
An oncologist and pulmonologist usually work together in handling patients with lung cancer.
6. Pulmonary Embolism (PE)
Pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when an artery in the lung is blocked due to a blood clot, which usually develops in a vein in the leg. When the blood clot breaks off, it travels through the bloodstream and reaches the lungs, where it gets stuck. Pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening without immediate medical treatment.
The symptoms of pulmonary embolism may include coughing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and chest pain. People with pulmonary embolism often continue their medications for six months or longer. The expertise of a pulmonologist is usually needed when it comes to the assessment and management of lung issues in patients with pulmonary embolism.
7. Sleep Apnea
One of the conditions that pulmonologists treat is sleep apnea, which is a sleep disorder that causes a person's breathing to slow down or completely stop when sleeping. These pauses usually last from seconds to minutes. When a person's breathing resumes, a choking, gasping, or snorting sound is made.
Although sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder, most people with the disorder are not aware of it. Sleep apnea usually has several causes that all result in getting less oxygen into the lungs and blood. Treatment for sleep apnea involves the use of breathing devices and special mouthpieces. Others may benefit from surgery.
Other conditions that require the care of a pulmonologist include:
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Pleural effusion
- Solitary pulmonary nodule
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
What to Expect at Your Appointment
If your primary care provider referred you to a pulmonologist, it very important to follow your doctor's referral because further assessment and additional treatment may be required for your condition. A pulmonologist is a specialist who diagnoses and treats respiratory conditions and other medical conditions that affect or damage the lungs.
Schedule an appointment for your initial checkup as soon as a referral has been made. Before your doctor's visit, make sure to bring with you a copy of your insurance card, medical records, and a list of your medications.
The pulmonologist will take a look at your medical history and current diagnosis from your primary care provider. You will also be physically examined and asked about your past and current symptoms. Some patients may undergo spirometry, which is an initial test performed to check how much oxygen is inhaled, how much air is exhaled, and how quickly air exits the lungs.
The pulmonologist may be able to provide a diagnosis and treatment depending on the reason for your referral. In some cases, further tests and checkups are required for proper treatment. Ongoing pulmonary care is usually provided by your primary care doctor along with your pulmonologist.