Breathing and Diseases of Lungs and Airways

June 28, 2009

Emphysema of Lungs

Emphysema is a disease of the alveoli. This disease often affects people who already suffer from chronic bronchitis. The walls of many of the alveoli break down or become overstretched. Therefore movement of oxygen into the blood is slower because there are fewer alveoli. People with chronic bronchitis and emphysema of the lungs usually have a cough which carries large amounts of mucus (phlegm) up to the mouth. They find breathing difficult, and they wheeze all the time as they breathe. They move slowly. They find it difficult to climb even a few steps because they quickly become exhausted. People who suffer from bronchitis and emphysema are much more likely to get pneumonia than are healthy people. Pneumonia is very dangerous for people with emphysema. If someone with emphysema gets pneumonia as well, this usually kills them.

Each year about thousands of men and women die from bronchitis and emphysema, many of them having suffered years of disability. The number of people actually suffering from these diseases is far greater. Several million working days are lost each year due entirely to sickness caused by these two diseases.

The proportion of people who die from chronic bronchitis and emphysema has been falling steadily in recent years. There are probably several reasons for this. Various clean air laws have provided smokeless zones in towns and cities. These laws have reduced the amount of coal smoke and other fumes in the air. Conditions in factories are better than they were. There are better ways of protecting workers from dusts and smoke. These include dust extractors and special protective clothing, especially face masks. There have been several improvements in the treatment of patients with bronchitis. They can be made to feel more comfortable and they probably live a little longer. Fewer people now smoke cigarettes. Those who do smoke, may be smoking less. The tar and nicotine content of cigarettes sold have both been reduced steadily in recent years. Tar and nicotine are both harmful.

Walls of Air Passages and our Health

Air contains the oxygen which we need. It also holds a lot of other things. Some of these can be dangerous, for example, dust, smoke and harmful bacteria. The amount and type of dust in the air varies a great deal. Some types of dust are more harmful than others. In healthy people the bacteria and larger dust particles all get trapped in the upper air passages. They are therefore prevented from reaching the lungs where they might cause infection, irritation or inflammation. The inner surface of all the air passages (nose, trachea, bronchi etc) is covered by special cells of two main types. These are goblet cells, which produce mucus, and ciliated cells, which have tiny hairs called cilia on them.

Mucus is a thick sticky liquid. The cilia move up and down all the time. Dust particles in the air are trapped by the sticky mucus. The cilia carry the mucus up towards the mouth. Coughing also helps. When the mucus gets to the mouth it is swallowed and eventually passes out of the body.

Good health depends partly on a healthy breathing system. The goblet cells and cilia have a very important part to play in making sure that the breathing system stays healthy.