Every Breath You Take: Inside the Respiratory System
written by: AngelicaMD•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 10/18/2011
Normally you don't give it a second thought, but every breath you take is vital and the oxygen it contains travels through a complex system to your body's cells. This guide to the respiratory system explores its structures and functions, what happens when things go wrong, and how they can be fixed.
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Anatomy of the Respiratory Tract
The act breathing is known as respiration and involves inhaling (inspiration) - taking in oxygen - and exhaling (expiration) - emitting carbon dioxide. And there are a number of organs and structures involved in the interchanges of gases including the nose, mouth, trachea (windpipe) bronchi and lungs.
Air entering through the nose and mouth travels down the back of the throat and into the windpipe, which then divides into two air passages called the right and left bronchi. These bronchial tubes supply air to the right and left lungs, respectively, and they subdivide into smaller air passages called bronchioles that terminate into millions of air sacs called alveoli (al-VEE-uhl-eye) where the actual exchange of gases takes place.
The principle functions of the respiratory system are 1) to supply the blood with oxygen in order for the gas to be delivered to all cells and tissues of the body, and 2) to get rid of carbon dioxide, a waste product of cells that can be harmful if it is allowed to build up.
Aside from breathing the respiratory system has other important functions including the prevention of harmful substances or impurities in the air from entering the lungs and a few metabolic and endocrine (hormonal) functions.
Like every other system in the human body, the organs and structures involved in respiration can come under attack or develop problems, some of which can be life threatening. These include genetic lung disorders (cystic fibrosis being one of the most common), respiratory infections and lung diseases brought about by elements in the environment such as cigarette smoke and other air pollutants. The full gamut of problems range from the mildly self-limiting such as a cold, to the potentially fatal such as lung cancer.
Cancer of the lungs is still a significant health risk for many Americans, and this is usually attributed to smoking cigarettes. However, there are more environmental factors that can cause serious lung disorders such as coal, asbestos and other pollutants.
The most common types of problems experienced by the respiratory system are caused by infections. Viruses, bacteria and fungi can be transmitted via personal contact or through inhaled air, and though some of the illnesses they cause can be relatively mild, like the common cold, others can have more serious consequences such as tuberculosis (typically caused by mycobacterium tuberculosis).
Proper diagnosis and treatment of respiratory diseases can be obtained by adequate medical consultation. Sometimes surgery may be needed when medications alone do not work. At times, common ailments such as the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection also respond to home remedies, natural remedies or holistic therapy. Here we have a list of treatments to help you learn more about how the different medical, surgical and alternative therapies may work for lung disease and other respiratory ailments.