Human lungs play a very vital part in the overall function and survival of every human being. Their primary function is to keep you breathing, and also to keep every other organ in your body functioning optimally.
The process of breathing culminates in the exchange of two vital gases; when you breathe in, your lungs carry oxygen from the air around you and pass it along into your bloodstream which in turn brings it to the cells in the organs and tissues in the rest of your body.
In exchange, your lungs pick up carbon dioxide from your bloodstream and dispose of it into the air around you when you breathe out. During each breathing cycle this gas exchange process happens, hence the need to ensure that your lungs stay healthy all the time in order to keep the body in optimal health. Let me start by sharing a few global statistics about lung health to highlight its importance.
It is estimated that 65 million people suffer from COPD and 3 million will die from it each year, making it the third leading cause of death worldwide. Every year, 10 million people develop tuberculosis (TB) and 1.6 million people die from it, making it the most common lethal infectious disease worldwide. Furthermore, 1.76 million people die from lung cancer each year, making it one of the most deadly cancers; while 334 million people suffer from asthma.
Incidentally, Asthma happens to be the most common chronic disease of childhood, affecting 14% of children globally, and rising. It is further estimated that 4 million people die from lower respiratory tract infections and pneumonia each year, and that 80% of pneumonia deaths occur in children under 2 years old; while most deaths (99%) occur in low- or middle-income countries.
When the air you breathe in is “unhealthy”, it exposes your lungs and, by extension, the rest of your body to all forms of health hazards which might lead to various forms of lung related health complications and ill-health. To maintain healthy lungs therefore, it is imperative that you become aware and alert to some of the risk factors that can contribute to poor lung health, and also, to know what you can do to protect your lungs from such hazards.
Risk Factors for poor lung health
Exposure to cigarette smoke is known to predispose a person to several lung conditions, apart from being the single most important cause of lung cancer. The other lung conditions include chronic bronchitis, emphysema (i.e. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and tuberculosis. The smoke from cigarettes is known to cause irritation and slow destruction of the lungs’ architecture leading to production of excess mucus, thereby causing excessive, prolonged coughing and difficulty breathing. Incidentally, the harm caused by tobacco smoke is not limited to smokers alone. Non-smokers who have experienced prolonged exposure to the smoke exhaled by smokers (i.e. second-hand smoke) are estimated to have a 20-30% higher risk of developing lung cancer, as well as, other forms of chronic lung diseases.
Outdoor Air Pollution
Under ideal circumstances, the air we breathe in should have been made up of 100% clean oxygen. Since this, unfortunately, is not the case, for various reasons, the air we breathe in daily is often polluted with several harmful substances, both naturally produced and man-made. Natural pollutants include smoke from wildfires etc. While man-made pollutants include emissions from cars, aeroplanes, factories, wood-burning, etc. These outdoor air pollutants can also contribute significantly to various forms of respiratory conditions and ill-health.
Allergens are substances which upon coming into contact with the body can trigger allergic reactions, and can even lead to chronic conditions like bronchial asthma. In the respiratory system, such allergies range from minor and manageable forms (e.g. nasal allergies) to severe and life-threatening forms (anaphylaxis). Allergic reactions can be triggered by medicine, food, insect bites etc.
Generally speaking, carcinogens are cancer causing substances. There are several substances used in the home that are known to be carcinogenic. Notable among these is asbestos, found in asbestos material that are used for roofing, insulation, tiling, plastering etc., in some homes. Breathing in the asbestos fibres from these materials is known to cause a very aggressive form of lung cancer (mesothelioma). Other known household carcinogens include certain chemicals in processed foods, formaldehyde, a chemical used in many household products, etc. But please note that just because you had contact with a carcinogen doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. Your chances of getting cancer depend on several other factors.
From the foregoing, the importance of healthy lungs cannot be overemphasized. However, over the years, problems affecting lung health have grown in magnitude and importance globally, to such an extent that the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS), an organisation comprising of the world’s leading international respiratory societies, working together to improve lung health globally, has set aside the 25th of September of every year as World Lung Day, to create awareness about lung health, as well as, share information about improving lung health globally.
Fortunately, most respiratory diseases are preventable by improving the quality of air. The common sources of unhealthy air are tobacco smoke, indoor and outdoor air pollution, and air containing microbes, toxic particles, fumes, or allergens. Thus, to keep your lungs healthy and prevent the wide array of respiratory diseases, the following are recommended: Discouraging individuals from starting to smoke tobacco and encouraging smokers to quit smoking are the first and most important priorities in preventing COPD.
Asthmatics who smoke have a more rapid decline in lung function than lifelong non-smokers.
Avoiding smoking during pregnancy and avoidance of passive smoke exposure after birth can reduce asthma severity in children.
Reducing air pollution saves lives and reduces the risk of many diseases. Vaccinations are essential for the control and elimination of many childhood respiratory diseases (e.g. the pneumococcal pentavalent vaccine). Controlling unhealthy air in the workplace can prevent occupational lung disease.
Most cases of TB can be cured if diagnosed early and treated appropriately. Lung cancer is largely preventable through tobacco control. Environmental causes of lung cancer, such as air pollution, radon, and asbestos, can be monitored and reduced.
Some of the above recommended interventions can be carried out at the individual level while others require higher decision-makers at national and international levels to implement. However, it is the right of everyone, children and adults, to breathe clean air and maintain healthy lungs, and thereby limit the risk of contracting any of the serious respiratory conditions. Decision-makers and lawmakers in every country should also play their part in enacting and ensuring clean air standards in all countries.
Visit your doctor
It is generally a good practice to visit your doctor once a year for a general medical check. However, should you be feeling unwell or suspect yourself of experiencing any unusual symptoms, it is always a wise decision to consult your doctor at your earliest convenience, for further assessment and treatment.
About the author
Eugene A Nyarko (MBChB; FGCP) is a medical doctor with specializations in Pulmonology, TB and Public Health, in addition to other professional abilities. With over 30 years’ experience as a medical practitioner and global health expert, Dr Nyarko runs Neocare medical center, an ultramodern healthcare facility, designed to provide quality service that exceeds just medical care.