Lungs and Respiratory System
About the Lungs and Respiratory System
Breathing is so vital to life that it happens automatically. Each day, you breathe about 20,000 times, and by the time you're 70 years old, you'll have taken at least 600 million breaths.
All of this breathing couldn't happen without the respiratory system, which includes the nose, throat, voice box, windpipe, and lungs.
At the top of the respiratory system, the nostrils (also called nares) act as the air intake, bringing air into the nose, where it's warmed and humidified. Tiny hairs called cilia protect the nasal passageways and other parts of the respiratory tract, filtering out dust and other particles that enter the nose through the breathed air.
Air can also be taken in through the mouth. These two openings of the airway (the nasal cavity and the mouth) meet at the pharynx, or throat, at the back of the nose and mouth. The pharynx is part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system because it carries both food and air. At the bottom of the pharynx, this pathway divides in two, one for food (the esophagus, which leads to the stomach) and the other for air. The epiglottis, a small flap of tissue, covers the air-only passage when we swallow, keeping food and liquid from going into the lungs.
The larynx, or voice box, is the uppermost part of the air-only pipe. This short tube contains a pair of vocal cords, which vibrate to make sounds.
The trachea, or windpipe, extends downward from the base of the larynx. It lies partly in the neck and partly in the chest cavity. The walls of the trachea are strengthened by stiff rings of cartilage to keep it open. The trachea is also lined with cilia, which sweep fluids and foreign particles out of the airway so that they stay out of the lungs.
Trachea and Bronchi
At its bottom end, the trachea divides into left and right air tubes called bronchi, which connect to the lungs. Within the lungs, the bronchi branch into smaller bronchi and even smaller tubes called bronchioles. Bronchioles end in tiny air sacs called alveoli, where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide actually takes place. Each lung houses about 300-400 million alveoli.
The lungs also contain elastic tissues that allow them to inflate and deflate without losing shape and are encased by a thin lining called the pleura. This network of alveoli, bronchioles, and bronchi is known as the bronchial tree.
The chest cavity, or thorax, is the airtight box that houses the bronchial tree, lungs, heart, and other structures. The top and sides of the thorax are formed by the ribs and attached muscles, and the bottom is formed by a large muscle called the diaphragm. The chest walls form a protective cage around the lungs and other contents of the chest cavity.
Separating the chest from the abdomen, the diaphragm plays a lead role in breathing. It moves downward when we breathe in, enlarging the chest cavity and pulling air in through the nose or mouth. When we breathe out, the diaphragm moves upward, forcing the chest cavity to get smaller and pushing the gases in the lungs up and out of the nose and mouth.
What the Lungs and Respiratory System Do
The air we breathe is made up of several gases. Oxygen is the most important for keeping us alive because body cells need it for energy and growth. Without oxygen, the body's cells would die.
Carbon dioxide is the waste gas produced when carbon is combined with oxygen as part of the energy-making processes of the body. The lungs and respiratory system allow oxygen in the air to be taken into the body, while also enabling the body to get rid of carbon dioxide in the air breathed out.
Respiration is the set of events that results in the exchange of oxygen from the environment and carbon dioxide from the body's cells. The process of taking air into the lungs is inspiration, or inhalation, and the process of breathing it out is expiration, or exhalation.
Air is inhaled through the mouth or through the nose. Cilia lining the nose and other parts of the upper respiratory tract move back and forth, pushing foreign matter that comes in with air (like dust) either toward the nostrils to be expelled or toward the pharynx. The pharynx passes the foreign matter along to the stomach to eventually be eliminated by the body. As air is inhaled, the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth warm and humidify the air before it enters the lungs.
When you breathe in, the diaphragm moves downward toward the abdomen, and the rib muscles pull the ribs upward and outward. In this way, the volume of the chest cavity is increased. Air pressure in the chest cavity and lungs is reduced, and because gas flows from high pressure to low, air from the environment flows through the nose or mouth into the lungs.
In exhalation, the diaphragm moves upward and the chest wall muscles relax, causing the chest cavity to contract. Air pressure in the lungs rises, so air flows from the lungs and up and out of respiratory system through the nose or mouth.
Every few seconds, with each inhalation, air fills a large portion of the millions of alveoli. In a process called diffusion, oxygen moves from the alveoli to the blood through the capillaries (tiny blood vessels) lining the alveolar walls. Once in the bloodstream, oxygen gets picked up by the hemoglobin in red blood cells. This oxygen-rich blood then flows back to the heart, which pumps it through the arteries to oxygen-hungry tissues throughout the body.
In the tiny capillaries of the body tissues, oxygen is freed from the hemoglobin and moves into the cells. Carbon dioxide, which is produced during the process of diffusion, moves out of these cells into the capillaries, where most of it is dissolved in the plasma of the blood. Blood rich in carbon dioxide then returns to the heart via the veins. From the heart, this blood is pumped to the lungs, where carbon dioxide passes into the alveoli to be exhaled.
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