Shortness of breath, fatigue, aching muscles, tightness in your chest—those are scary symptoms for anyone to be dealing with. But your first visit to a pulmonologist doesn’t have to be nearly so terrifying.
In fact, a pulmonary fibrosis screening is mostly noninvasive. Chances are good you’ve undergone some of the tests they’ll want to perform on you at some point earlier in your life, whether it was for an infection, a broken bone or another health problem.
Want to know exactly what to expect before you’re parked in the waiting room? Keep reading to learn what to expect during a pulmonary fibrosis screening.
Step 1. Reviewing Your History
The first thing your doctor will do is sit down with you to discuss what you are experiencing. They’ll ask you about your symptoms, any pain you’re in, any medications you’re currently taking and healthcare problems both past and present. They should ask you about any exposure you’ve had to certain drugs, chemicals, gases and particles that are known to be associated with pulmonary fibrosis.
Step 2. Physical Exam
A basic exam will follow. The pulmonologist will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs while you breathe and he will also tap on your chest. They will also look at your skin coloring and inspect your hands while looking for signs of clubbed fingernails, which can indicate some chronic diseases, including pulmonary fibrosis.
Step 3. Testing
A pulmonary fibrosis diagnosis requires a number of different tests, most of them completely noninvasive. Your pulmonologist’s office might do some of them in-house, or they might schedule them at another medical office or hospital that specializes in diagnostic testing.
These tests fall into four different categories: imaging, lung function, blood tests and tissue tests.
An imaging test uses different types of technology to let doctors take a look at what’s going on inside your body. For an IPF screening, you will likely have a CT scan. You might also have a chest X-ray and an echocardiogram.
Lung function tests
It’s important for your pulmonologist to “see” your lungs in action. Lung function tests help them do that. You’ll start with a spirometry test. Basically, you’ll blow as hard as you can into a tube that’s connected to a machine. It will measure how much air you exhale and how fast you exhale. They’ll also do a pulse oximetry test to measure how much oxygen is in your bloodstream.
Your doctor may also want to perform a stress test. During a stress test, technicians will hook you up to a variety of machines that will measure things like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing while you walk or jog on a treadmill.
During the six-minute walk test, you will be instructed to walk as far as possible for six minutes. You are allowed to take breaks if needed but are encouraged to keep walking if possible. If your oxygen saturation drops below 88% at any point, that metric will be recorded. The ultimate goal of this test is to measure lung function and tolerance to exercise.
During your pulmonary fibrosis screening, your doctor will probably take some blood. They’ll want to perform an arterial blood gas test, which measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood. They may order a few more tests to see how other organs, like your kidney and liver are functioning. This is important because when you’re having trouble breathing, it can create a domino effect that harms other body systems.
This is the most invasive portion of an IPF screening, but it’s also incredibly easy: All you have to do is lie back and relax.
Your doctor might do a bronchoscopy in their office. During the procedure, they will numb your nose and throat before sliding a thin scope down into your lungs to take a small tissue sample. You might feel some irritation in your nose or throat later, but it should pass quickly.
It’s likely that your doc will want to take a larger tissue sample for more definitive test results. To do that, they’ll want to perform a surgical biopsy, which will require you to be under anesthesia.
How to Prepare for a Pulmonary Fibrosis Screening
Instead of twiddling your thumbs and scratching off the days until your appointment on the calendar, why not do something productive? These three must-dos will help you prepare as much as possible for your pulmonary fibrosis screening.
- Write down your medical history. It can be difficult to remember all the relevant tidbits that might be pertinent to your own diagnosis and treatment on the spot. Making a list beforehand can help prevent memory lapses while you’re in the doctor’s office. Everything from medications and occupations to surgeries you’ve had and where you’ve lived should be included.
- Examine your family history. Did your mom’s mom have lung cancer? Did your brother receive a lung transplant? Capture as much family history as you can prior to your appointment and save that information for future reference, too. If you’re not sure and there are other family members you can contact for information, reach out now before your first appointment.
- Track your symptoms. Is your breathing worse at a certain time of day? Do you cough only under certain conditions? When did you begin feeling this way? These are all questions that will help your pulmonologist diagnose you correctly.
The most important thing to remember is that a screening is the first part of your journey with your healthcare team. It’s essential to find a pulmonologist that you’re comfortable speaking with honestly, someone you trust to manage your treatment plan going forward. If you’re diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, you have a long road ahead of you. The right doctor and a combination of medications and therapies can help you live your life as normally as possible.