All over the world and in Nigeria, people have taken to wearing face masks, to protect themselves from infection with Coronavirus, the causative agent of COVID-19, the pandemic disease ravaging over 200 nations and territories.
Though the virus can get into the body through the mucous membranes of the eye, nose and mouth, the main organ that bears the brunt of the infection in the human body are the lungs. The lungs work all day and night, whether you’re awake or asleep. It has been estimated that the average person takes 20,000 breathes per day. By age 50, an average person would have taken around 400 million breaths.
Man has had to contend with various pulmonary diseases for millennia, but the emergence of the dreadful COVID-19 has forcefully made people more conscious of the need to protect the lungs. The most important function of the lungs is to make oxygen get into the blood, which is then carried to every cell in the body to ensure the smooth and efficient metabolic operations of the various tissues and and organs, to sustain life. And when the blood returns to the lungs, laden with carbo dioxide (CO2) from the cells, the lungs remove the gas which is then exhaled (breathed out). Carbon dioxide is waste product of metabolism that is harmful to the body.
How air gets into the lungs
When a person breathes in air through the nose, tiny hairs help rid it of dust and germs. It passes through the sinuses (hollow bony spaces around the nose and eyes), which help get air to the right temperature and moisture level. Air also enters through the mouth, especially during exercise or if your nose is stuffy. All of it goes through the throat and into the windpipe, which splits into two bronchial tubes — one for each lung.
The bronchial tree
In your lungs, each bronchial tube branches into a maze of smaller and smaller tubes. Tiny hairs called cilia along the inner surface of the tubes help trap dust and germs that the person can cough up, sneeze out, or swallow. The smallest tubes are called bronchioles. These end in tiny air sacs called alveoli. This is where your lungs deliver oxygen to the blood and take back carbon dioxide. This system of tubes and sacs is referred to as the bronchial tree.
The human body has hundreds of millions of tiny delicate sacs called alveoli in each lung. Inside each one are minute blood vessels called capillaries, through which oxygen gets into your blood and CO2 is taken out. When somebody has lung disease, whether from smoking, chemicals, mold, bacteria, or a virus like the one that causes COVID-19 — it’s often the alveoli that start to break down.
What are lungs made of?
Your lungs are made of a special sponge-like tissue that stretches easily and keeps its shape without damage. Your right lung is divided into three sections, or “lobes.” Each lobe expands like a balloon when you breathe in and deflates when you breathe out. Your left lung is a bit smaller, with two lobes, with your heart nearby. A thin lining called the pleura covers both lungs.
Where are the lungs in the body?
The chest cavity (thorax) is a space that houses and protects the heart and lungs. Your ribs and attached muscles make up the top and sides. A large muscle called the diaphragm is directly below the two lungs. In the centre is the mediastinum, which holds your heart, thymus gland, and other organs. It also separates the two lungs so that if one is punctured or damaged, the other may still work on its own.
Slipping and sliding
The pleura is a thin, slippery membrane that encases the outside of each separate lobe of the lungs. It lines the inside layer of the chest cavity. A thin layer of fluid separates the pleural membranes from each other. This makes it easier for your lungs to continue to slide smoothly and evenly when they expand, contract, and shift over different areas of your chest cavity as you move around.
How do you breathe in and out?
The powerful dome-shaped diaphragm at the bottom of the chest cavity creates suction as it pushes down toward the gut. At the same time, muscles in the chest pull the ribs out and up to make more room for the lungs to expand. Together, this draws air in through the nose and mouth. To breathe out, the diaphragm pushes back up and the chest wall muscles relax to force CO2-rich air out of the lungs.
Your breathing (respiration) rate is the number of breaths your lungs take per minute. You are in the normal range between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. More or less than that could be a sign of a health problem that may or may not directly relate to your lungs. This includes heart failure, anxiety, asthma, pneumonia, drug abuse, lung disease, and other illnesses. Your doctor can help you find the source of the problem.
Your lungs as you age
As you get older, changes can happen that make it harder for your lungs to do their work. Some of these changes include: muscles like your diaphragm, your main breathing muscle, start to weaken; Lung tissue starts to lose stretchiness, which can narrow your airways and bones and muscles in your rib cage can shrink, leaving less space for lungs to expand. Your immune system may not be as strong, making you more prone to infection.
Smoking and your lungs
Tobacco smoke can narrow and inflame your airways and make it harder to breathe. It often irritates your lungs and can cause a nagging cough. Over time, the smoke destroys lung tissue and might cause cancer. It’s the No. 1 cause of lung cancer and COPD, a disease that slowly destroys the alveoli that transfer oxygen to your blood.
Lung disease warning signs
Coughing up blood, you must see a doctor immediately.
Breathlessness, even after exercise, is not normal when experienced for long periods
A cough that has lasted for about month is regarded as chronic
Wheezing: It means that something has narrowed or blocked your airways.
Coughing up phlegm: Consider this a serious sign if it has lasted for a month.
Chest pain: Especially if it worsens when you breathe or cough
Get some exercise
Exercising is not only good for your heart and keeping a healthy body weight, it is also good for your lungs, even if you have a lung condition. If you are not a gym person, take walks, jog or play regular tennis game. Aim to exercise for 30 minutes five times a week. Discuss with your doctor about your exercise plan if you already have breathing problems or other medical conditions.
Adapted from webmd.com