Your hardworking lungs are on the job every day. Their two basic tasks: to inspire, or bring in a supply of oxygen that allows the body to survive and function, and to expire, or remove carbon dioxide (waste).
But breathing might not come easily if your lungs don't work properly — for example, if disease prevents air from flowing properly into or out of them.
Some lung conditions, such as pulmonary fibrosis, limit how much air the lungs take in. With this disease, scarring and stiffening of the lungs make it difficult to take a deep breath. While there can be many reasons for scarring, including breathing in workplace dust, often the cause isn't known.
Treatment can include oxygen therapy and exercise programs (available at Rush Oak Park Hospital) to help people stay active despite the disease. And because pulmonary fibrosis has been known to worsen quickly, clinical trials at Rush are focusing on new medications designed to slow lung function decline.
Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are both known as obstructive lung diseases that can cause shortness of breath. "But the primary problem with obstructive disease is that you can't get air out of the lungs adequately," says Brian Stein, MD, a pulmonologist at Rush University Medical Center.
And when you can't fully empty your lungs, you'll also have trouble getting enough air in, he explains. "With asthma, inflamed airways narrow in response to triggers that range from pet dander to mold. COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, can also result in inflamed airways, as well as destruction of air sacs in the lungs, where oxygen enters the blood."
At the Rush Comprehensive Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Center, treatment focuses on disease management, including medication and lifestyle changes. Clinic experts also provide asthma education that includes avoiding triggers and treatment for aggravating conditions, such as acid reflux, that often accompany the condition. For COPD, smoking cessation, medications and specially designed exercise programs can help people stay active.
If your lungs are healthy, do what you can to keep them that way. Lung function naturally declines with age, Stein says. "Avoid anything that may accelerate that." Smoking tops the list. Exposure to dust, fibers (such as asbestos) or hazardous chemicals can also damage the lungs. If you work around these substances, use the recommended protective equipment and procedures.
Finally, when it comes to maintaining healthy breathing, diet and exercise play more of a role than you might think. Excess pounds can squeeze the chest wall and restrict the lungs, impeding easy breathing. And aerobic exercise conditions your heart and lungs and helps your body use oxygen efficiently, increasing your endurance for everyday tasks. "It turns your body from a gas-guzzling pickup into a Prius," Stein says.
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