Take A Breath

A short overview of asthma and pulmonary fibrosis.

Our lungs are pretty important organs, considering they are the ones we use to breathe. And reports of them being at danger of disease are increasing as inner city pollution levels rise. So, being the helpful person I am, I’ve decided to do a brief summary of two of the main conditions associated with the lungs. You’re welcome.

Before I discuss lung diseases, it would probably be wise to summarise the structure of the breathing pathway. The trachea runs from the mouth down the neck and splits into two bronchi – one goes into each lung. These then split into smaller bronchioles which end in little air sacs called alveoli. The easiest way to think of the gas exchange system is like an upside down tree. The trachea is the main trunk, and the bronchi are the main branches off the top of it. The bronchioles are then all of the little twigs off these branches and the alveoli are the leaves where the gas exchange actually occurs.

Possibly the most well-known lung disease is asthma. Almost everyone knows someone with the disease, and it is frequently popping up on the news, usually related to tragic events where people have died as a result of an asthma attack. But what exactly is asthma? Most people know it involves an inhaler but do they actually know what it does?

In asthma, the airways of the lungs are inflamed, usually due to irritants such as dust, pollen or particles in the air. This leads to more mucus being produced and the bronchioles constricting. The constriction of the bronchioles means that it is very difficult for air to pass through, as there is now less space for it to do so. In an asthma attack, this occurs very suddenly and can be fatal if an inhaler is not used almost immediately. Inhalers are not just air, and hence should not be used as toys by children who want to try out their friend or sibling’s (trying out someone’s crutches can be harmless childhood curiosity, but trying out someone’s inhaler is just daft). This is because inhalers actually include medication which dilates the bronchioles once more. This stops the tightening of the chest and allows the person to be able to breathe again. Depending on the severity of the asthma an individual has, they may have a number of inhalers containing different drugs. Most sufferers tend to have a blue reliever inhaler which alleviates short term symptoms. Asthma is not someone not having enough air, it is someone not being able to get the air they need into their lungs.

Another lung disease, fibrosis (not to be confused with cystic fibrosis – a genetic condition which affects multiple organs) is one which few people actually understand. Pulmonary fibrosis is the formation of scar tissue in the lungs. This can be due to an infection, or even heavy coughing as a result of prolonged exposure to dust or other irritants. This scarring means that the lungs are less flexible, and so cannot expand and contract as easily in order to pump air in and out. Additionally, the thicker scar tissue is much harder for gases to travel across, meaning that sufferers struggle to get the oxygen they need, and so have much faster breathing rates than the average person. Whereas asthma is a condition which many children are familiar with, fibrosis is one which tends to affect people from middle to late adulthood depending on their lifestyles. It has some similar symptoms including shortness of breath and chest pain, but additionally sufferers also experience a prolonged dry cough and increased fatigue. When diagnosed with this, people are expected to live for another three to five years, on average, though new developments in medicine aim to increase this.

Now, these are just two of many diseases which can affect the lungs. I haven’t covered emphysema or bronchitis (which come under the snappy name of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or even pulmonary tuberculosis. However, if you’d like me to then I happily will write about them for you. Just let me know over on twitter and I’ll do another lung disease post for you guys, because I’m nice like that. I hope this has been informative, and you now know just why you shouldn’t jokingly hide an asthmatic person’s inhaler from them.

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