Angie's LIST Guide to
Pediatric Pulmonology

Pediatric pulmonology is a branch of medicine that specializes in treating children with lung problems and chronic respiratory diseases. It requires expertise to diagnose and treat a child's respiratory system.


Photo collage of babies and doctors.
Children often are diagnosed with illnesses and conditions that affect adults, but because of their special needs, they are often referred to pediatric specialists. Specialists in all areas can provide treatment plans to improve health and quality of life.

Pediatric pulmonology specialists

Before pursuing a career in pediatric pulmonology, a prospective specialist must complete four years of medical school to earn a doctorate in medicine, followed by a general internship program and a three-year residency in pediatrics or internal medicine. Supervised, practical experience is the final step in preparing a doctor to work in this field. Next, the governing board administers a series of exams to the candidates, and successful completion of these exams earns prospective specialists a license.

Licensed professionals practice in general hospitals and clinics as well as in private practice. Pediatric lung doctors can diagnose and treat young patients who suffer from congenital problems, malignancies or common respiratory problems.

What pediatric lung doctors treat

A pediatric pulmonology specialist commonly treats asthma, a chronic respiratory ailment that causes inflammation of the airways. Doctors often see allergies and asthma together. Irritants such as pollen, volatile chemicals or pet dander can trigger asthma. For this reason, these doctors not only treat a child's asthma symptoms, but they work to figure out the triggers.

Bronchitis, both chronic and acute, involves inflammation of the airways. Chronic bronchitis is an infection that produces excess mucus and a productive cough. The chronic inflammation and accompanying cough can cause serious damage if left untreated. Acute bronchitis is a short-term case that generally follows a viral infection. This type of bronchitis also affects children who are constantly exposed to smoke or who have a preexisting lung or heart disease.

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that affects the regulation of salt, water and the mucus-making cells of the body. It is both chronic and progressive. Children with this disease are born with a genetic abnormality that causes their body to produce thickened mucus. This causes problems in many body systems, including the respiratory and digestive organs.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious virus that causes infection in the lungs and breathing passages. Children at high risk for this virus receive a monthly injection to prevent them from contracting it during the peak RSV seasons of fall and winter.

When any of these disorders are present, poorly managed or severe, the child's pediatrician can issue a referral to a specialist. A recommendation can provide the child with more intensive, complex therapy. The relatively few specialists in this field may mean that travel is required to see a physician. In such cases, in particular, specialists could work with pediatricians to give the best possible care for the child.

Pediatric pulmonology tests

Lung function tests are generally noninvasive and painless. After taking a complete medical history, the pediatric pulmonologist thoroughly examines the child. Common tests measure the effectiveness of the lungs in moving air in and out, as well as lung capacity. These tests are noninvasive and painless, and they only require the child to sit quietly and cooperate while the specialist records the data.

If a child is old enough to follow instructions, the doctor may use a spirometric test, which helps measure the volume and speed of the breath. The doctor asks the child to take the deepest breath he or she can, and then exhale as hard as he or she can into the spirometer mouthpiece. Nose clips are often used to prevent air from escaping through the nose.

Along the same lines, an oscillometric test involves the child breathing into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a computer. This test is best for children who have difficulty breathing deeply or difficulty following instructions. Infant pulmonary function testing gathers the same necessary information on infants and is performed while the child is under sedation. Lung doctors can also track oxygen saturation and exhaled carbon dioxide levels. Like the previous tests, this process is gentle and only requires a child to sit still.

After testing the lungs, the pediatric pulmonologist may give the child a dose of medication through an inhaler and repeat the tests to see if there are any significant changes.

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