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How Your Lungs Work

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.  | 

Lung Failure

There are many common conditions that can affect your lungs. Diseases or conditions of the lung fall mainly into two classes — those that make breathing harder and those that damage the lungs' ability to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.

Diseases or conditions that influence the mechanics of breathing:

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  • Asthma: The bronchioles constrict, reducing the size of the airways. This cuts down on the flow of air and makes the respiratory muscles work harder.
  • Emphysema: The lungs become stiff with fibers and become less elastic, which increases the work of the respiratory muscles.
  • Bronchitis: The airways become inflamed and narrower, which restricts the flow of air and increases the work of the respiratory muscles
  • Pneumothorax: Air in the chest cavity equalizes the pressure in the chest cavity with the outside air and causes the lungs to collapse. This is usually caused by trauma or injury.
  • Apnea: Breathing slows or stops under a variety of conditions. There are many types of apnea, and they are usually caused by problems in the respiratory centers of the brain.

Diseases or conditions that minimize or prevent gas exchange:

  • Pulmonary edema: Fluid between the alveolus and pulmonary capillary builds up, which increases the distance over which gases must exchange and slows down the exchange.
  • Smoke inhalation: Smoke particles coat the alveoli and prevent the exchange of gases.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning: Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin more tightly than either oxygen or carbon dioxide, which minimizes the delivery of oxygen to all the tissues of the body, including the brain, the heart and muscles. Carbon monoxide is a common product of poorly vented heaters (space heaters, furnaces, water heaters) and of automobile exhausts. This condition can be fatal if not caught soon after exposure.

How Your Lungs Work FAQ

Where are the lungs located?
The lungs are found on each side of the breastbone in the chest cavity and are divided into five main sections or lobes.
Which gases are exchanged during respiration?
Two gases are involved in breathing. The lungs get rid of carbon dioxide through exhalation and bring in oxygen through inhalation.
What are the parts of the respiratory system?
The anatomy of the lungs includes the alveoli, bronchioles, bronchi, diaphragm, epiglottis, intercostal muscles, larynx, nasal cavity, pleural membranes, pulmonary capillaries, and trachea.
What causes air to enter the lungs?
When you inhale, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs) contract and expand the chest cavity. This expansion lowers the pressure in the chest cavity below the outside air pressure. Air then flows in through the trachea and bronchi and inflates the lungs.
How do you know if something is wrong with your lungs?
There are many signs that could indicate lung issues (likely a symptom of a larger issue). These include, but aren't limited to wheezing, consistent coughing, shortness of breath, coughing up blood or mucus, and pain when you inhale or cough. If you're experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, consult your doctor right away.
What's the worst lung disease?
There are a number of lung diseases and unfortunately, they're some of the most common medical conditions. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most serious lung conditions, as there's no cure once you have it, even if you stop smoking or eliminate exposure to things like dust, air pollution, and certain chemicals.

Originally Published: Oct 6, 2000

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