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The evaluation and treatment of pulmonary diseases (pulmonology) is a medical subspecialty focused on the respiratory system -- the body's breathing apparatus that includes the series of tubes that carry air to the lungs (often called "airways"), the lungs themselves, and the muscles surrounding the chest and in the diaphragm that allow the lungs to expand and contract to enable breathing. The airways include the nasal passages, mouth, larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), and bronchial tubes, which eventually divide into progressively smaller branches that end in clusters of tiny sacs called alveoli, where the oxygen in the air is delivered to the blood stream. Breathing is a vital function whose end result is delivering oxygen to all the body's cells and tissues and eliminating carbon dioxide (a waste product of the body's energy production). This vital gas exchange occurs in the tiny blood vessels that surround the alveoli.
Pulmonary disease refers to any problem in the respiratory system that affects breathing, whether it disrupts or impairs airflow or inhibits the oxygen-carbon dioxide gas exchange. There are many such diseases, including some that even occur while a person is asleep (i.e., sleep apnea). Pulmonary diseases ranges from acute and usually treatable illnesses, such as infections of lungs (pneumonia) or airways (bronchitis), to chronic conditions that need ongoing treatment, such as airway reactivity and inflammation in people with persistent asthma, or the chronically obstructed breathing in people with emphysema. With some chronic pulmonary diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis (often lumped together as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD), permanent damage to lung tissues may occur and, if severe, result in the need for supplemental oxygen therapy. Finally, lung cancer is a major cause of pulmonary disease and the second leading cause of cancer and cancer-associated death in men and women.
Physicians specializing in the prevention, diagnosis, and nonsurgical treatment of pulmonary diseases are called pulmonologists. Pulmonologists are first trained and certified in internal medicine or pediatrics and then receive specialized training and certification in pulmonary disease.
Pulmonologists are not surgeons, but they perform certain invasive procedures involving the respiratory system, including bronchoscopy which enables the physician to directly examine the respiratory tract with a lighted telescope and, if necessary, obtain fluid and/or tissue samples from within the airways or lungs. Pulmonologists also perform a wide range of specialized respiratory system testing, including measuring different aspects of lung function, determining how well the heart and lungs work together during exercise, or looking for sleep apnea.
Many problems of the respiratory system, such as simple common infections of the upper airways or well-controlled asthma, can be managed effectively by primary care physicians. However, pulmonologists are often consulted in the care of patients with more challenging or serious conditions, such as poorly controlled asthma or COPD, complex or unusual infections, occupational exposures and injuries or any other complications involving the respiratory system.
For more information about pulmonologists on the Medical Staff at The Chester County Hospital and Health System, call our Physician Referral Service at 610.738.2300 or visit the Find a Doctor section of our website.
Last Updated: 12/12/2012