Inhale. Exhale. What Your Lungs Do for You.

Inhale. Exhale. What Your Lungs Do for You.

Inhale. Exhale. What Your Lungs Do for You.

Inhaling and exhaling. It’s something that we do every day, every waking minute. It relaxes us, wakes us up and, most importantly, keeps us alive.

The lungs are part of the respiratory system, made up of organs and tissues that work together to help you breathe, says the American Lung Association. leaving site icon They move fresh air and oxygen into the body while removing waste gases. 

To survive, every cell in the body needs oxygen. The air around us contains oxygen and other gases. As we breathe, we take in air. Oxygen is moved to the bloodstream and transported throughout the body. Blood carries oxygen so it touches each cell of the body. As it interacts with cells, oxygen is exchanged for waste (carbon dioxide gas). The blood then carries the carbon dioxide waste back to the lungs where it’s removed from the blood stream and exhaled.

This gas exchange happens automatically and is a vital process for the body.

But that’s not all. The respiratory system has other roles important to breathing:

  • Warming or cooling air to the right temperature and moisturizing it to the right humidity level
  • Protecting the body from harmful substances by coughing, sneezing, filtering or swallowing them
  • Supporting the sense of smell
How the Parts of the Respiratory System Work

There are many parts to the respiratory system. The American Lung Association lists them as follows.

  • Sinuses: These are the hollow spaces in the bones of the head, above and below the eyes that are connected to the nose by small openings. They help regulate temperature and humidity of the inhaled air.
  • Nose:  This is the preferred entrance for outside air into the respiratory system. The hairs lining the inside of the nose are part of the air-cleaning system.
  • Mouth: Air also enters through the mouth, especially for those who may have a stuffy nose due to a cold or allergies.
  • Throat: The channel that collects air from the nose and mouth and passes it down to the windpipe.
  • Windpipe: Also, known as the trachea, this passage leads from the throat to the lungs.
  • Bronchial Tubes: The windpipe divides into two main bronchial tubes that lead to each lung. They divide again into each lobe of the lungs and continue to split into bronchioles.

There are also a variety of blood vessels that help the lungs function correctly.

  • Lobes: The right lung is divided into three lobes, or sections, while the left lung is divided into two lobes. Each lobe is like a balloon filled with sponge-like tissue. Air moves in and out through one opening, which is a branch of the bronchial tube.
  • Pleura: These are two membranes that surround each lobe of the lungs and separate the lungs from the chest wall.
  • Cilia: These very small hairs line the bronchial tubes and move like waves. The motion carries mucus upward and out into the throat where it can be coughed up or swallowed. Mucus collects much of the dust, germs and other matter that invades the lungs. The body rids itself of these through coughing, sneezing, clearing the throat or swallowing.
  • Bronchioles: the smallest branches of the bronchial tubes are the bronchioles. The alveoli, or air sacs, can be found at the end of the bronchioles, and are the destination of breathed-in air.

As you age, the lungs lose capacity. So, it’s important to prioritize lung health and not take it for granted.  How you can keep your lungs healthyleaving site icon

  • Get regular checkups. Even if you aren’t sick, regular annual wellness checkups can help to prevent serious diseases. This is true for lung disease that usually goes undetected until serious symptoms arise. During checkups, the doctors or providers will listen to your lungs and breathing, addressing any concerns you may have.
  • Exercise: Getting physical activity is good for your overall health. Exercise helps to improve lung capacity. Breathing exercises can also boost your mood and help you relax.
  • Don’t Smoke: Cigarette smoke is the major cause of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It also causes chronic inflammation (swelling in the lungs) which leads to chronic bronchitis. Over time, smoke destroys lung tissue and may even lead to cancer. It’s never too late to quit.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants: Pollutants include outdoor air pollution, chemicals used at home or in the workplace and radon. They can all cause lung disease or make it worse. Aim to make your home and car smoke free. Avoid exercising outdoors on bad air days. Test your home for radon.
  • Prevent illness and infection: Protect yourself from colds or other respiratory infections.
    • Wash your hands with soap and water. Use alcohol-based cleaners work as a substitute if you don’t have access to a sink.
    • Get vaccinated against the flu. Talk to your doctor to find out if the pneumonia vaccine is right for you.
    • If you get sick, stay home. Help to protect the people around you by keeping your distance.

Practice good oral hygiene.  Brush your teeth at least twice a day. It can prevent germs in the mouth from developing into infections.

Sources: How Lungs Work, leaving site icon 2022; Protecting Your Lungs, leaving site icon 2021, American Lung Association.

Originally published 8/3/2018; Revised 2022