Interesting facts about your lungs

Published 8:44 pm Monday, November 12, 2012

November is National Lung Health Awareness Month. Aside from knowing that you have them, how much do you really know about your lungs? Find a comfortable seat, take a deep breath and prepare to be amazed.
The lungs, the centerpiece of the respiratory system, are the most important organ in the human body. The lungs are also the largest internal organ, and the only internal organ with constant and direct exposure to the outside. In response to the potential trouble that this exposure can cause, the human body comes equipped with defense mechanisms throughout the respiratory system to catch, deflect and expel foreign objects and irritants before they reach the lungs. Tiny hairs called cilia line the respiratory system from the nostrils through the bronchial tubes. Also present is a sticky substance called mucous. Foreign particles get caught by cilia and mucous and are expelled when we cough or sneeze. The force of a cough is about 60 mph, and the force of a sneeze is over 100 mph. The average person breathes in about 44 pounds of dust in a lifetime, but only a fraction of this makes it past the cilia and mucous lining of healthy lungs.
As an organ, the lungs are composed of a right and left side each attached to the main bronchial tube via right and left main stem tubes. The right lung is made of three lobes and is slightly larger than the left lung. The left lung, with only two lobes, is a bit smaller to accommodate the heart. The lobes are really fascinating! Lobes are made of spongy tissue enclosed by a thin membrane called pleura. When human lungs are completely dry, they resemble a fine grade natural sponge and weigh just a few ounces. The lungs are the only human organ that can float on water. The lungs are small enough to fit comfortably inside the rib cage, even when fully inflated. This relatively small size is deceiving, though. If the complete surface areas of the spongy lobes were rolled out flat, the tissue would cover an entire tennis court.
An adult with normally functioning lungs breathes 12-18 times per minute at rest. This respiratory rate increases when a person exercises, is sick, or is stressed. Babies are born breathing 40-50 times per minute and continue to breathe faster than adults until they are about five years old. The average adult takes at least 17,000 breaths each day — a staggering minimum of six million (6,000,000) breaths per year. Adults inhale and exhale approximately 11,000 liters of air per day. That air travels through an estimated 15,000 miles of airways, some almost microscopically small, in order to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. Air is inhaled into the lungs through the nose and mouth, but the diaphragm, a strong wall of muscle located directly underneath the lungs, is the bellows that actually allows the expansion of the lungs.
As miraculous as the lungs are, they cannot function at their best without some tender love and care from the humans in which they reside. Once lungs are damaged, they cannot be repaired. It is possible to live a pretty normal life with only one lung. Removing a lobe, or even an entire lung, is sometimes the only way to stop lung disease (such as cancer) and prevent future damage. Single or double lung transplants are now viable options for some people suffering from chronic lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis. What kinds of “tender love and care” do our lungs require?
•Protection. Protect your lungs by not smoking tobacco or any other substance. Wear a mask when working around mold, dust and/or harsh chemicals. Avoid smoky environments, both inside and out.
•Good nutrition. Healthy eating fuels healthy lung functioning. Lungs particularly like the nutrition found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale and other leafy greens. Drink lots of water to keep that mucous flowing.
•Exercise. Daily exercise builds strength and lung capacity. Lung function is further enhanced when you practice deep breathing. Deep breathing exercises are also relaxing and stress reducing.
•Healthy surroundings. Take care of your overall health. Get the recommended immunizations, such as the flu and pneumonia shots. Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol based hand sanitizer. Avoid being around sick people or being in crowds during the winter cold and flu season.
Impressive, isn’t it?  Now take a deep breath, exhale, and celebrate the magic of your lungs.

Alene P. Warden, MSHE, RRT/RCP, is Manager, Cardiopulmonary Services, Vidant Beaufort.