The body requires oxygen, and the respiratory system is responsible for taking in this vital substance and expelling its byproduct—carbon dioxide. While the primary organs involved in the respiratory system are the lungs, the system is complex and relies on various body parts and tissues to work. From the nose to the diaphragm, all parts must work together to keep this system functioning optimally.
The respiratory system is composed of an upper and lower tract. The only visible part of this entire system is the nose, which belongs to the upper respiratory tract. Also in this section are the nasal cavity, pharynx, and voice box or larynx. The lower respiratory tract includes the windpipe or trachea and the lungs. Various tissues within the lungs also aid in the respiratory process.
The respiratory system has two main jobs: to take in oxygen and to get rid of carbon dioxide. Our cells need oxygen to live and perform their functions. As cells function, they produce waste—carbon dioxide. The body needs to get rid of this waste, and it relies on this system to do it.
Air is taken in through the nose and then passed through the nasal cavity, which filters it. Filtered air goes through the pharynx and larynx. Besides contributing to speech, the larynx or voice box helps ensure food and other foreign objects cannot enter the lower respiratory system.
When most people think of the respiratory system, they immediately envision the lungs, which are indeed integral to the breathing process. The lungs are cone-shaped organs divided into sections known as lobes. These paired organs take up most of the space in the chest cavity, which they share with the heart.
The lungs take in air from the upper respiratory system through the pipe-like bronchi. These pipes branch out into the lungs and eventually form air sacs called alveoli, which exchange gases with the blood. The oxygen enters the blood from the alveoli, and the heart pumps it throughout the body. Carbon dioxide is transferred from the blood to the lungs, which remove it from the body when we exhale.
The respiratory system relies on the blood to distribute oxygen throughout the body. This relationship is essential to survival. The circulatory system dedicates arteries to this purpose. The pulmonary arteries stretch directly from the right side of the heart to the lungs. The lungs must receive a large amount of blood to effectively perform their important work.
The lungs may be essential to the respiratory system, but they rely on other parts of the body to work. For instance, the process of breathing requires muscular support. In addition to the work of the intercostal muscles, the diaphragm contracts and flattens as the lungs inhale and exhale.
As we age, so too does the structure of the lungs. The alveoli enlarge and lose some of their elasticity. The chest wall decreases, which can make breathing more difficult. The diaphragm muscles tend to decrease in strength as well. These changes can make it harder for older adults to breathe, and increased stress on the respiratory system leaves them more vulnerable to conditions such as pneumonia.
Many conditions affect the respiratory system. The common cold, of course, can impact our breathing, making it temporarily difficult to inhale and exhale. Conditions such as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and lung cancer also affect this vital system. These are serious disorders that typically require medical intervention and possibly long-term treatment. They can also be life-threatening.
One of the best ways to keep your respiratory system healthy is to avoid smoking, which experts have long associated with serious health problems including lung cancer. A healthy respiratory system can also help keep other parts of your body in good health too. To support respiratory health, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, eat a nutrient-rich diet, wash your hands regularly to prevent infection, and maintain a good hygiene regimen. Also, protect your lungs as best as you can from particulates in the air like smoke and pollution.
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