How to Look After Your Lungs and Keep Your Respiratory System Healthy - VITAL+ Pharmacy

With Covid on the rise, there’s never been a better time to prioritise your lung health. Take a deep breath — here’s how to keep your respiratory system and your lungs in check.

How often do you stop to think about your breathing? The answer is most likely, not very often. Research shows that almost half (46%) of all Australians rarely or never think about their lung health. Why would you when it’s something that your body does naturally, without even having to think about it?

But with as many as 1 in 3 Australians impacted by lung disease and lung cancer, it’s worth taking notice of your respiratory health before it’s too late. Keeping your lungs in great shape can make the world of difference to your overall health and wellbeing, as well as helping to fight against infection and illness.

How do the lungs and the respiratory system work?

Our lungs are one of the most vital organs in our body — they help us breathe, which essentially keeps us alive. Together, they’re actually one of the largest organs in your body that make up part of your body’s respiratory system.

Your lungs are in your chest, and are protected by your ribcage. They allow you to breathe in fresh air (oxygen) and get rid of stale air (carbon dioxide). When you breathe, the lungs take in oxygen from the air and pump it through the body’s airways and air sacs. The oxygen is then absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to the heart via the blood vessels.

The stale air (carbon dioxide) can’t remain in the body, so that’s where your respiratory system comes into play — it brings oxygen into your body and helps to remove carbon dioxide.

The respiratory system is the network of organs and tissues that help you breathe — your airways, lungs and blood vessels. The muscles that power your lungs are also part of the respiratory system. These parts work together to transport oxygen around the body and clean out waste gases like carbon dioxide, from your blood. Getting rid of carbon dioxide is essentially you breathing out.

As well as helping you breathe, your respiratory system allows you to talk and smell, it ensures that air is the right temperature and humidity level for your body, it delivers oxygen to the cells in your body, it removes waste gases, including carbon dioxide, from the body when you exhale, and it protects your airways from harmful substances and irritants, like dust and germs.

Problems with your respiratory system can reduce the oxygen that reaches your lungs, which can make you unwell. Doctors use the phrase ‘lung disease’ or ‘respiratory disease’ to describe the many different conditions that affect the respiratory, or breathing, system.

What conditions affect the respiratory system?

There are a number of factors that can impact your breathing and cause problems with your lungs and respiratory system.

Some conditions develop from breathing in irritants from the air, like pollen and dust that cause allergies, or viruses and bacteria that can cause infection and illness. Others occur due to disease or simply getting older.

They can be short term (acute) or long-lasting (chronic). People experience a range of symptoms with respiratory conditions, but some might include:

  • breathlessness or wheezing
  • persistent, new or changed cough
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood, mucus or phlegm

Some serious respiratory conditions can cause long-term illness or in very severe cases, death.

If you experience any breathing troubles or pain, contact your healthcare provider for further examination. They will primarily listen to your chest, lungs, and heartbeat to look for signs of a respiratory issue, such as infection. They may also use imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI to check for any swelling or blockages in your lungs and other parts of your respiratory system.

Common problems that can affect the respiratory system include:

  • Asthma — wheezing and shortness of breath caused by a narrowing of the airways (as a result of constant inflammations). Allergies, infections, or pollution can trigger asthma symptoms.

  • Allergies — (such as heyfever) an allergic reaction when your nose or eyes come into contact with environmental irritants such as pollens, dust mites, moulds and animal dander. Allergies can cause inflammation in your airways, as well as headaches, inadequate sleep and recurring ear and sinus infections.

  • Infections — bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchial tubes), laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box, or ‘larynx’) and pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs) are common lung infections that can develop if germs and harmful substances aren’t trapped by your respiratory system as you breathe in. Common respiratory infections include Covid, the flu or a cold.

  • Disease — certain illnesses and diseases impair the respiratory system’s ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body and filter out waste gases. Common respiratory disorders include lung cancer, chronic pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema – disease of the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs.

  • Blood clots — a blood clot in the lung is known as a pulmonary embolism. This can occur after surgery or if you’re inactive for long periods of time.

  • Ageing — your lung capacity naturally decreases as you get older.

  • Damage — damage to the respiratory system , such as smoking, can cause breathing problems, and increase your risk of serious diseases like COPD and lung cancer.

So how can I keep my respiratory system healthy?

Whilst some things like ageing, allergies and infection can be hard to avoid, there are steps you can take to prioritise your lung health and to prevent any long-term chronic diseases like lung cancer or COPD. Here are some helpful tips to keep your respiratory system (especially your lungs) healthy as you age.

  • Avoid harmful air pollutants – ongoing exposure to pollutants in the air, such as chemicals, smoke, mould, dust and pesticides, are common causes of chronic lung diseases; try to avoid as much as possible by ventilating your home and work space, and wear protective clothing if you work with chemicals.
  • Don’t smoke – smoking is a well-known cause of lung disease, so if you’re a smoker try your best to quit now. There’s lots of help out there. Read our article on how to quit smoking for more information.

  • Get your vaccines — consider having the flu jab every year along with any other vaccines such as Covid, hoping cough or pneumonia. Discuss with your doctor about your risk status.

  • Speak to your doctor — early diagnosis of any lung condition is essential, that way you can get the appropriate treatment as early as possible, before the condition gets any worse. If you’re concerned about your lungs, or have a history of lung disease in your family, visit your doctor for a lung health check up.

  • Practice good hygiene — washing your hands regularly prevents the spread of diseases that can cause lung infections.

  • Introduce plants to your living space — houseplants are amazing for your respiratory health. They cleanse the air from toxic chemicals and also raise the air’s humidity to protect us from respiratory problems, like asthma and bronchitis, and relieve symptoms such as congestion and coughing.

Loved our advice on respiratory health? We've got plenty more health and beauty advice on our Health & Wellness Edit, guaranteed to give your body a well-deserved boost. Do I really need a third Covid booster shot? Suffer with peeling feet? Here are 8 reasons why.

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