How Your Lungs Work
posted by Internal Medicine Team | September 6, 2016
Each breath you take through your nose or mouth travels down the back of your throat and into your trachea, routing oxygen through air passages called bronchial tubes. These tubes pass through the lungs and divide into smaller air passages, bronchioles, that have tiny air sacs on the ends called alveoli. In fact, your body has over 300 million alveoli surrounded by tiny blood vessels that route oxygen into your bloodstream. From there, the oxygen travels to your heart for distribution to the cells in every tissue and organ in your body.
As your cells metabolize this oxygen, they produce carbon dioxide. The blood absorbs this waste gas and carries it back to your lungs where you breathe it out with each exhalation. This life-sustaining process is known as “gas exchange.”
It’s important to pay attention to even the slightest wheeze, shortness of breath or persistent cough. These early warning signs can indicate a serious underlying illness such as asthma, COPD or pneumonia.
Asthma affects 16 million adults in the United States and approximately 6 million children. Although not curable, this chronic disease is manageable. Asthma involves an inflammation of the airways in the lungs, making them very sensitive to environmental triggers like allergens, smoke, weather or chemicals.
Breathing in a trigger causes these airways to swell even more, constricting the air space in the lungs and tightening the muscles around the airways. This process is called an asthma attack.
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease. It includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema and affects more than 11 million people in the U.S. COPD can cause serious long-term disability and early death, but it is often preventable and treatable.
People with COPD have inflamed and thick airways in the lungs and damage to the tissue where oxygen exchange occurs. This reduces airflow, decreases the oxygen supply to the body’s tissues and makes it harder to remove carbon dioxide. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath and a chronic cough make it harder to be active. Rescue inhalers and oral or inhaled steroids are often used to treat symptoms and help minimize further damage.
Pneumonia is a common infection in one or both lungs caused by bacteria, a virus or fungi. Pneumonia can have more than 30 different causes, but “approximately one-third of the pneumonia cases in the United States each year are caused by viruses,” reports the American Lung Association.
The germs responsible for pneumonia cause the alveoli in the lungs to become inflamed and fill with fluid, resulting in the common symptoms of cough, fever and difficulty breathing. Pneumonia can be mild or severe, and many treatments exist. Healthy people recover in one to three weeks, but pneumonia can be life-threatening if it leads to a systemic infection. The good news is that pneumonia can be prevented by following the tips below.
The American Lung Association offers five essential tips for safeguarding your precious lungs and improving their capacity:
1) Don’t smoke. Smoking causes chronic inflammation in the lungs and is the leading cause of COPD and lung cancer.
2) Prevent infection. Practice good hand and oral hygiene, avoid crowds during flu season and get an annual influenza vaccination.
3) Avoid pollutants. Secondhand smoke, chemicals, radon and outdoor air pollution can cause and worsen lung disease.
4) Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise and specific breathing exercises can help improve your lung capacity.
5) Get regular wellness exams, even when you are feeling great. Lung disease sometimes goes undetected until it is serious. During a check-up, your internist will listen to your breathing to catch a lung problem in the early stages.
Are you concerned about the health of your lungs? Revere Health Internal Medicine has 30 providers in four Utah locations to serve you. We provide compassionate, patient-centered care for a wide variety of diseases in adolescents and adults, including lung-related illnesses and conditions.
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.