Breathing is an essential part of living. Right? D’uh. It follows that lung health is critical if we want to breathe easy. Our respiratory system, which includes our nose, throat, windpipe and lungs, helps us bring air into our body when we breathe. The oxygen from the air from each breath we take is transferred into the blood stream and distributed to each cell in the body giving them the fuel they need to keep us alive. This important job is performed by the lungs. So, lung health is absolutely essential to a healthy lifestyle.
Did you now that the average adult takes 15 to 20 breaths a minute – which is, what, 20,000 breaths a day? That’s a lot of work for a pair of delicate lungs, would you not say?
Lung health – how do the lungs work?
Our respiratory system, of which the lungs are a part, helps us breathe. Its main function is to bring in fresh air into the body and flush waste gases out of the body. Each cell in our body needs oxygen to live. The air entering the body via the lungs carries oxygen along with other gases. Once the air reaches the lungs, the oxygen is steered into the blood stream which transports it through the body. In each cell, the oxygen cells replace the waste gas, which is carbon dioxide. This waste gas is then carried by the bloodstream back into the lungs, from where it is exhaled out of the body. This gas exchange is an automatic and ongoing process by the lungs and the respiratory system. But it is not just breathing in and out. Besides the gas exchange, the respiratory system also does the following to support the breathing process:
- it maintains the air’s temperature in the body
- it moisturizes the air we inhale bringing it to the right humidity
- it protects our body from inhaling harmful substances through a series of mechanisms such as coughing, sneezing, filtering, or swallowing them.
- it gives us the sense of smell
Oh yes, the lungs are a busy lot. No vacation.
Maintaining lung health
Obviously we must protect our lungs. The lungs are unlike other body organs – they are delicate tissues in direct contact with the outside environment. Whatever you breathe in has an impact on the lungs. This can be germs, smoking cigarettes and cigars and other harmful substances that harm the airways and get in the way of the lungs’ working the way they should. The good news is our body is equipped with a natural defense system to protect the lungs and while this keeps the germs and dirt out, there are things we can personally control to maintain our lung health and keep off lung disease.
Here’s a quick list of do’s and don’ts:
This naturally has to be the first thing on your list – kick the butt. Now. Cigarette smoking kills. It is the no.1 cause of lung cancer and COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. When you smoke, the air passages become narrower and make it difficult to breathe. The lung swells up. This leads to bronchitis. The lung tissue gets destroyed, resulting in changes that lead to cancer. So – moral of the story? Stop smoking.
Keep away from pollutants that can cause lung damage
Did you know that passive smoking, or secondhand smoke can also harm you as much as actually smoking? So can air pollution, chemicals around your home and at work. As far as possible keep away from all kinds of smoke as this can trigger or worsen lung disease. Check your home for Radon. If you’re accustomed to working out outdoors, make sure you avoid it if the air is polluted.
While colds seem inevitable during certain seasons, they can sometimes cause respiratory infections and become chronic diseases. How can you protect yourself from this? Some ways are:
- Making it a point to wash your hands with soap and water often. If you can’t, carry hand sanitizers
- Stay away from crowds and crowded places when cold and ‘flu are in the air.
- Maintain oral health and hygiene to protect you from infections. Ensure you brush your teeth twice daily and keep your dentist’s appointments – once in six months is a good frequency.
- Get the ‘flu vaccine once a year. Don’t forget to check whether you need the pneumonia vaccine.
- Sick? Stay at home until you are better. Don’t spread it.
- Get regular health checks – prevention is better than cure. This holds true especially for lung health. Lung disease can be a silent killer and you may find out only when it is in an advanced stage.
My Mother was diagnosed with lung fibrosis six months after we started to worry about her cough which became chronic. The doctors investigated and said it was idiopathic or “cause unknown”. She was prescribed steroids to bring the symptoms under control. And given six months to a year to live, because there is no cure for interstitial lung disease. The medication created kidney problems and hypertension. And she had to take medications for those. During the following 12 years that she survived, she suffered on and off, was in and out of hospital until she contracted Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Even as she seemed to be recovering from this, the TB had spread and her spine was on the verge of disintegrating as she was also had severe osteoporosis. After a three month bed rest, she seemed to have overcome the disease, when her lung collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital and hooked to full life support. The lung collapsing is not a major issue, per se. There are cases where it has been inflated and restored to its normal function. Sadly, because of her existing interstitial lung disease and the fibrosis, the lung had lost its elasticity and five days later, she breathed her last. If she lived 12 years – it was purely because of her disciplined lifestyle.
So the point is – regular health checks are a must if you want to diagnose a problem early and take action.
How can you tell if there are signs of lung disease?
You certainly don’t want to be blissfully unaware, right? So here’s what to watch out for.
- A persistent cough – which means, like a month. It is time to see your doc and check it out.
- Breathlessness – this is fine after physical exertion such as exercise. But if it continues even when you do not exert yourself, it raises a red flag. If you have difficulty breathing, see the doc.
- Phlegm that does not cease after an infection and a course of medication. True that mucus is a defense mechanism but if the phlegm continues for a month or so, it could signal that all is not well with your lung health. See the doc.
- Wheezing, identified by noisy breathing could indicate that your airways have a problem. Time to see your doc. Where I live, wheezing is common because of allergens in the air . Each time we see the doc, he prescribes inhalers that control the wheezing.
- See blood when you cough. Scary. Where did the blood come from? The lungs? Or the respiratory tract? Either way, get help immediately.
- Chest pain that won’t go away. Don’t write it off as gas, although that could be the problem too. If the chest pain stays for a month, it is an unwelcome guest. And a warning. Get medical help.
Invest in your health. It is the only thing that really pays off!
I am taking part in BlogHer’s December 2013 NaBloPoMo