Breathing is something that most of us don’t often think about, but each day we draw as many as 23,000 breaths, which deliver more than 2,000 gallons of air to our lungs. The essential act of inhaling and exhaling, 10 to 20 times per minute, supplies our blood with the life-sustaining oxygen needed by all cells in the body, and removes carbon dioxide waste.
The lungs also help defend against infection by destroying foreign substances such as bacteria and dust that we inhale. Because the lungs play such a vital role in our health, it’s important that we treat them with care.
Breathing clean, pollution-free air is the key to maintaining healthy lungs for life. Not smoking is the most important thing we can do to love our lungs and reduce the risk of lung disease.
“Don’t smoke,” says Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. “Don’t be around anybody who smokes. Smoking is the number one environmental cause of lung disease,” he says.
If you do smoke, quit now. Call 1-800-Quit-Now or visit www.SmokeFree.gov for information on how to quit. Stopping smoking, even if you have lung disease, will help you live longer, says Dr. James Kiley, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s lung division. “It is never too late to stop. There are immediate benefits.”
In addition to not smoking, try to avoid exposure to air pollution, whether indoors or outdoors. “People who live near highways and other areas where they are exposed to exhausts and diesel engines are exposed to air pollution, and air pollution can be dangerous,” Edelman says.
Stay indoors when outside air quality is poor, and, if you work around chemicals, fumes or other toxic substances, wear a mask that meets Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards. The American Lung Association offers several tips to improve the air quality in your home, including using high-efficiency air filters and changing them regularly; using ventilation fans in the bathroom and kitchen; opening the windows for a few minutes each day to bring in fresh air; and using a dehumidifier in the basement when the humidity level is high.
Talk to your doctor about getting an annual flu vaccine and a pneumonia vaccine, especially if you are at risk or if you already have lung disease.
Like the rest of the body, the lungs need the proper vitamins and other nutrients to stay healthy, so eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and get adequate protein. If you are underweight or overweight, see a dietitian.
Exercise is good for the lungs as well. Aerobic exercise, such as walking and dancing, improves the ability of the lungs to deliver oxygen to the body, says Dr. Michael W. Blatt, a lung specialist at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, W.Va. “Trained muscles use less oxygen. You’ll be able to do more work for longer.”
Report any breathing problems, however minor, to your doctor. Increased shortness of breath, a persistent cough, wheezing, coughing up blood or colored mucus, chest pain or tightness, and hoarseness can be symptoms of lung diseases such as asthma, bronchitis or lung cancer.
More than 35 million Americans have chronic lung diseases. According to the American Lung Association, these diseases are responsible for more than 340,000 deaths annually, including some 160,000 lung cancer deaths.
A serious lung disease—encompassing emphysema and chronic bronchitis—is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which afflicts an estimated 24 million Americans. “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a killer disease and it’s on the rise,” Kiley says. Like lung cancer, COPD is closely linked to smoking.
“Anyone who is over 45 who has smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 10 years should take a breathing test,” says Dr. Mark Millard, medical director at the Martha Foster Lung Care Center at Baylor University in Dallas.
Not smoking, making healthy lifestyle choices, and paying attention to any breathing difficulties or warning signs can go a long way toward keeping your lungs healthy. Early detection and medical care may help slow the progression of lung diseases.
Ultimately, loving your hardworking, life-sustaining lungs will ensure that you’ll breathe easier for a lifetime.
What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term used to describe serious diseases in which the lungs are damaged, making it difficult to breathe. Two of those diseases—emphysema and chronic bronchitis—frequently occur together.
Some 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and just as many are believed to have the disease without knowing it. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than 123,000 deaths each year. Smoking causes 80 to 90 percent of COPD-related deaths, according to the American Lung Association.
In people who have COPD, the passageways that carry the air into and out of the lungs are partly blocked, resulting in increased shortness of breath. The condition can become so severe that simple tasks such as bathing and dressing are difficult.
“I can become short of breath sitting down in a chair, if I talk too long, or if I eat too much,” says COPD Foundation Programs Manager Pam DeNardo, of Trinity, Fla. (pop. 4,279), who suffers from emphysema. “I always feel like people do at the end of a run when they can’t catch their breath.” In emphysema, air sacs and small airways in the lungs are damaged. Airflow is obstructed, making it difficult to exhale, especially during physical activity. With chronic bronchitis, often called “smoker’s cough,” persistent coughing and shortness of breath are caused by lung inflammation and excess mucus production.
In addition to smoking, other major risk factors for COPD include long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, workplace exposure to pollutants, a history of childhood respiratory infections and a family history of emphysema.
While there is no cure, there are treatment options that may halt the progression of COPD and help sufferers breath easier and live longer. For smokers, the first step in prevention or treatment is the same: Quit smoking.
Dr. James Kiley, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s lung division, emphasizes the importance of reporting any symptoms—shortness of breath, persistent cough, wheezing, chest tightness, or excess mucus—to a doctor as soon as possible.
“See your physician,” Kiley says, “because early detection can lead to effective treatments, and that’s really important.”