When your respiratory system is doing what it’s supposed to do, you barely give it a second thought. With each of the more than 20,000 breaths you take a day, life-sustaining oxygen enters your nose and travels to your lungs. They, in turn, transfer oxygen into your bloodstream, which ferries it to all your body’s cells. During this process, your blood picks up carbon dioxide and carries it back to your lungs where it’s expelled when you exhale.
Your respiratory system performs this intricate, well-choreographed dance over and over again without skipping a beat. Until stuff that’s in the air, from cigarette smoke to pollutants,throw a wrench in the system.
“Our lungs interact with the environment,” says Dr. Lisa A. Maier, chief of the division of environmental and occupational health sciences at National Jewish Health, in Denver, Colo. “We literally breathe in everything that’s around us.”
And respiratory problems are the price many of us pay. For example, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are major public health burdens in America, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An estimated 23 million Americans have asthma, and COPD is the third leading cause of death in the nation. Lung cancer is the top cancer killer in the U.S., taking an estimated 160, 340 lives in 2012, reports the American Lung Association (ALA).
Problems don’t happen overnight. The first sign that something’s amiss with our respiratory system may be a chronic cough, shortness of breath, excess mucus, wheezing, chronic chest pain or even coughing up blood, according to the ALA. “Over a lifetime, cumulative risks can result in more significant respiratory disease,” says Maier.
The key to lung health is protecting your lungs from the things most likely to harm them in the first place, says Maier. “Once damage has been done, we try to keep that from worsening or progressing.” Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats to your lung health and how you can avoid or minimize them.
Smoking. No surprise here: Lighting up is just about the worst thing you can do to your lungs and your body. Diseases caused by smoking kill more than 393,000 Americans annually, according to the ALA. Cigarette smoke is a noxious stew of more than 4800 chemicals, 69 of which have been linked to cancer. Not only does smoking up the risk of lung cancer, but also it causes COPD.
Protect yourself: It goes without saying: Don’t smoke. And if you do smoke, quit.
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Secondhand smoke. Inhaling somebody else’s cigarette smoke is just as bad for your respiratory system as smoking. The Environmental Protection Agency has called secondhand smoke (a.k.a. environmental tobacco smoke) a known human carcinogen. Passive smoking can cause a range of respiratory problems including lung cancer, infections and asthma, says the ALA. In fact, even the developing fetus is exposed to its mother’s smoke through the blood, says Maier. “Children of mothers who smoke have an increased risk for asthma and respiratory infections.”
Protect yourself: Steer clear of places where smokers congregate. And don’t let people smoke around you.
Allergens in the home. Think animal dander, dust mites and mold, to name a few. “These can be a risk for respiratory problems,” says Maier. In people with a genetic susceptibility, continuous exposure to allergens can cause allergic sensitization, or an allergic response. When that happens, “even low exposures can be problematic,” says Maier. That can lead to asthma or other problems such as chronic sinusitis.
Protect yourself: Some techniques to try: Be scrupulous about getting rid of dust. And if you can’t bear the thought of putting your pet up for adoption, keep it off beds, furniture and carpets, and brush it regularly to reduce shedding and dander. Control dust, dander and fur by using a HEPA vacuum cleaner, which traps tiny airborne particles as you clean. Clean up water damage before mold gains a foothold.
Workplace allergens. People who work in settings where they are routinely exposed to allergens are also at risk for allergic sensitization. “We worry about workplaces because that is usually where exposure is highest,” says Maier. Respiratory culprits include glues (acrylates), two-part paints and two-part foams (isocyanates) and high levels of dust and other irritants, which can increase the risk of asthma COPD and lung damage.
Protect yourself: Companies should change the chemicals they use or have procedures in place such as respirators and exhaust ventilation systems to reduce people’s exposure to allergens, says Maier. In addition, workers should discuss their concerns about exposure to harmful substances with their company’s health and safety staff and union leaders. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), offers information on workplace hazards, and can help employers and employees assess them and recommend strategies for reducing them and preventing work-related illness. (Visit The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Outdoor allergens. Pollen, the fine powder that lets plants reproduce, is the big one. Pollen from ragweed, grass and trees can make susceptible people miserable.
Protect yourself: Pollen season varies depending upon where you live. (Check pollen.com to pinpoint yours.) When pollen is in the air, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recommends staying indoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. when levels are highest. Keep windows closed to reduce exposure. Regularly wash clothes to remove pollen. And don’t dry clothes outdoors as pollen can settle on them.
Outdoor air quality. A recent ALA report stated that more than 131.8 million Americans, or 42 percent of us, live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. Ozone is the byproduct of gases emitted by tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources. Add sunlight to the mix, and presto, you end up with smog. Teeny solid and liquid particle pollutants hang out in the smoke that comes from coal-fired power plants or motor vehicles. When they merge, they create haze. Inhaling these pollutants can cause wheezing, coughing, asthma and even heart attacks and premature death, according to the ALA.
Protect yourself: Listen to local reports and don’t exercise outside when pollution levels are high, advises the ALA. Don’t work out near high-traffic areas either. To learn what you can do to improve the air, visit airnow.gov. Developed by federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the site features air quality forecasts and strategies for reducing air pollution.
Infections. Children and even adults who repeatedly develop bacterial and viral respiratory infections, such as influenza and pneumonia, are at increased risk for asthma, says Maier. “Infections can also aggravate underlying lung disease,” worsening symptoms.
Protect yourself: Get an annual flu vaccine to lower your risk for influenza. Also, all adults 65 and older should receive the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) to protect them against pneumonia. Adults ages 19 through 64 who have asthma or who smoke should also get the shot, as should anyone who has long-term health problems or a disease that lowers their resistance to infection, according to the CDC. All kids younger than five should get the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13).