An Overview of the Respiratory System

by | Jul 12, 2019 | Blog, Lung Disease, Respiratory Lifestyle

Breathing is a natural function of the body, and we breathe anywhere from 12 to 16 breaths a minute without consciously thinking about it. However, inside our bodies, there is a whole system of parts that work together seamlessly to create every breath.

If chronic lung disease is new to you, you may have heard some unfamiliar anatomical terms for the respiratory system. Here, we explain those terms while taking a deeper look at the respiratory system and how it functions.

The Chest Cavity

The chest cavity (thorax) holds and protects the airways, lungs and heart. The ribs and intercostal muscles between the ribs make up the top and sides of the thorax, while the diaphragm forms the base. The diaphragm is the primary muscle used for breathing, and along with the ribs and intercostal muscles, it helps the lungs push air in and out during inhalation and exhalation.

The Upper Respiratory Tract

A breath starts in the nose and mouth. The breath then travels down the throat (pharynx) until it reaches the voice box (larynx). The larynx controls the entrance to the airways and stops food from traveling down into the lungs.

The larynx also marks the transition between the upper respiratory tract and the lower respiratory tract.

The Lower Respiratory Tract

After it passes the larynx, air travels down the windpipe (trachea). The trachea is the main airway into the lungs. Muscle, tissue and cartilage make up this thin, strong tube that runs from the base of the throat to the breastbone. A mucous membrane lines the trachea and traps dirt, dust, bacteria and allergens.

At the breastbone, the trachea branches off into 2 smaller airways called bronchi that lead to each lung. Throughout the lungs, the bronchi then continue splitting into smaller and smaller airways, called bronchioles. Each lung has hundreds of thousands of bronchioles. These bronchioles are lined with tiny hairs called cilia. The cilia are responsible for moving mucus and phlegm up out of the airways, as well as trapping dirt, germs, bacteria or viruses.

At the ends of the bronchioles, air enters tiny air sacs called alveoli. There are hundreds of millions of alveoli in the lungs. A web of small blood vessels called capillaries cover the alveoli. Here, the process of gas exchange occurs:

  1. Inside the alveoli, oxygen in the air moves out into the capillaries and further out into red blood cells in the bloodstream. These red blood cells whisk the oxygen to the heart, and the heart then sends oxygenated blood out to the entire body.
  2. Deoxygenated, carbon dioxide-rich blood moves back down the bloodstream from the heart toward the lungs.
  3. The carbon dioxide passes into the capillaries and further into the alveoli. The carbon dioxide is then exhaled out by the lungs.

How Chronic Lung Disease Affects the Respiratory System

If one or more parts of the respiratory system stop functioning correctly, then chronic lung disease develops. Over time, breathing in cigarette smoke, air pollutants or toxic substances can damage the bronchial tubes, cilia, lung tissues and alveoli. This damage hinders the process of gas exchange in the respiratory system, which in turn can leave you struggling to breathe. While chronic lung conditions cannot be cured, Lung Health Institute offers cellular therapy treatment that can help slow the progression of the disease. Contact a patient coordinator today for more information or to schedule a free consultation.

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