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What is pulmonology?

Pulmonology is a medical specialty that treats diseases involving the respiratory system, a group of organs and tissues that work together to help you breathe. The respiratory system’s main job is to move fresh air into your body while removing waste gases when you exhale. The lungs are a critical part of the respiratory system. Many different types of illnesses affect the respiratory system.

How Lungs Function

Every cell in your body needs oxygen for energy and growth. During a typical day, you breathe nearly 25,000 times. When you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen from the air and deliver it to the bloodstream to be carried through your body. Within each cell, oxygen is exchanged for a waste gas called carbon dioxide. Your bloodstream then carries this waste gas back to the lungs, where it is removed from the bloodstream before exhaling. This gas exchange is an involuntary function.

The respiratory system is susceptible to several diseases, and the lungs are prone to a wide range of disorders. Thus, the term lung disease refers to many disorders affecting the lungs, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and lung cancer.

What are common lung diseases?


Asthma is characterized by inflammation of the bronchial tubes caused by increased production of sticky secretions inside the tubes. People with asthma experience symptoms when airways tighten, inflame, or fill with mucus. Common symptoms include coughing (especially at night), wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, pain, or pressure. Some people with asthma may go for extended periods without experiencing symptoms, followed by periodic worsening of symptoms called asthma attacks. Others may have asthma symptoms every day.

For some, if their asthma is severe, eosinophils may be the leading cause. Eosinophils are a normal part of the immune system. However, increased levels of eosinophils can worsen inflammation in the lungs, and this inflammation can cause severe asthma attacks. A test measures eosinophils in the blood to determine if asthma is an eosinophilic type.

Allergic asthma is caused by breathing in an allergen – a substance that can cause an allergic reaction. Airborne, year-round allergens, such as pet dander or dust mites, are common allergic triggers. Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma, affecting 25 million people in the U.S.

Community-Acquired Bacterial Pneumonia

Community-acquired bacterial pneumonia (CABP) is pneumonia acquired outside of a hospital setting. Symptoms include fever, cough, sputum production, chest pain, difficult or labored breathing, abnormally rapid breathing, and heart rate that's too fast. Diagnosis is confirmed by a chest x-ray and is treated with antibiotics determined by patient history, physical examination, and laboratory test results. Prognosis is excellent for relatively young or healthy patients. Still, many cases of pneumonia, especially when caused by S. pneumoniae, Legionella, Staphylococcus aureus, or influenza virus, are severe and can be fatal in older, sicker patients.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) causes scar tissue to form deep within the lungs. Over time, the scar tissue thickens and becomes stiff or thick, which can make breathing difficult. Other complications occur when the brain, heart, and other organs do not get enough oxygen due to scarring. The cause of IPF is often unknown, but it’s a progressive disease that can be fatal. IPF progresses at different rates, and it is difficult to predict how quickly lung function will decline. Although lost lung function cannot be restored, and there is no cure for IPF, the goal of treatment is to slow down the decline in lung function by slowing disease progression.

IPF affects 132,000 people in the U.S., and about 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. It is more common in men than women and mainly affects people over 50 years of age.

The two main symptoms are:
  • Breathlessness – This usually first appears during exercise. Breathlessness can affect day-to-day activities such as showering, climbing stairs, getting dressed, and eating, and as scarring progresses, breathlessness eventually prevents all activities.
  • Chronic Cough – About 85% of people with IPF have a chronic cough that has lasted longer than eight weeks. This is often a dry cough, but some people may also cough up sputum or phlegm.

Mycobacterium Avium Complex Lung Disease

Mycobacterium Avium Complex (MAC) is the most common form of nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM). NTM are bacteria commonly found in the environment. MAC enters the lungs when inhaling and can affect certain people more than others. Those with a history of lung conditions such as Bronchiectasis, COPD, and Asthma are more likely to develop MAC lung disease. Additionally, MAC lung disease most commonly affects women aged 65 or older with weakened immune systems and those who reside in coastal areas. The main symptoms of MAC lung disease are coughing, feeling tired, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are often persistent and worsen over time.

Systemic Sclerosis-Associated Interstitial Lung Disease

Also known as systemic scleroderma (SSc), SSc is a rare, chronic autoimmune connective tissue disease that is long-lasting and causes the body’s immune system to attack itself. SSc causes the skin and internal organs, such as the lungs, to thicken and harden, preventing affected organs from functioning properly. Many living with SSc may develop interstitial lung disease (ILD), which causes scarring of the lungs and makes breathing more difficult over time. About 80% of people living with SSc develop ILD.

Common symptoms of SSc:
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Dry cough that you can’t get rid of
  • Fatigue

ILD may not cause symptoms in its early stages, so it is important to talk to your doctor about any changes in your breathing.

What are some support resources?

To learn how to keep your lungs healthy and get the facts about lung disease symptoms, causes, and treatments, as well as advice and support for managing different lung diseases, visit: