Every time you take a breath, air enters your lungs and oxygen moves from your lungs to your blood. Every time you exhale, carbon dioxide moves from the blood to the lungs and is then expelled when you breathe out. This happens thousands of times every day, and unless you have a respiratory problem, you likely never pay any attention at all to the process.
Our bodies have a natural defense system designed to protect our lungs and keep germs at bay. But there are still many things that can – and do – harm our lungs. Worse, you may be causing irreparable damage to your lungs and won’t even know it until symptoms or serious problems occur. Strong and healthy lungs are more important than ever with concerns about COVID-19 or even the seasonal flu, but the fact is that lung health is a critical part of health and wellness at virtually every point in our lives. That’s why taking good care of our lungs should be a priority for everybody.
Understanding the factors that can damage your lungs is important so you can take appropriate actions or change your behavior if necessary:
- Smoking. By now everybody knows the serious health consequences of smoking cigarettes, including drastically increased risk of lung cancer. But, did you know that smoking also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema? Smoking causes chronic inflammation, narrows the passages and makes it harder to breathe, and the carcinogens in cigarettes damage the spongy tissue that make up your lungs. Over time, this damage can cause cells to act abnormally, and may result in lung cancer. The good news is that stopping smoking – even after years or decades – can lead to an immediate reduction in your risk for cancer and other conditions. Learn more about El Camino Health’s smoking cessation program.
- Outdoor air quality. During fire season, we are all very aware of the poor quality of the air, and many of us likely experience the effects of polluted air, including trouble breathing, coughing, becoming breathless or lightheaded with minimal exertion and more. While minimal exposure is unlikely to do permanent damage, prolonged exposure can lead to asthma, chronic bronchitis, diminished lung capacity, and even cancer. While it’s nearly impossible to avoid poor air quality completely, you can protect yourself by monitoring the air quality (this site provides real-time readings) and avoiding or minimizing outdoor activity when it’s in an unhealthy range. Take your workouts inside, keep your windows tightly closed, and consider using a HEPA filter in your home to significantly reduce the fine particulate matter (inhalable matter) that can cause so many problems.
- Indoor air quality. Secondhand smoke, wood-burning fires, dust, and even some cooking methods can seriously damage the quality of the air inside your home. To keep the air inside your home healthy, start by keeping a clean home. Dust and vacuum at least twice a week, and wash bedding and towels at least weekly in hot water to kill any dust mites. Use environmentally-friendly cleaning products without a strong scent. Make sure your cooking area is well ventilated, and avoid cooking methods that produce a lot of smoke. Change your air filters regularly, and invest in an air purifying system or a HEPA filter. Finally, when the air quality outside is good, open your windows and let the fresh air in.
- Vaping. Over the past 10 years, vaping or e-cigarettes have become extremely popular, particularly among teenagers and young adults. But this “smokeless” alternative to cigarette smoking is hardly safe, and in fact can cause significant lung damage. While researchers don’t yet fully understand the impact of vaping on long-term health, they do know that the e-liquid that produces the vapor that’s inhaled can include many dangerous irritants, including diacetyl, formaldehyde and acrolein – all of which can damage the lungs and lead to heart disease. Most vaping products also contain vitamin E which is perfectly safe when taken as an oral supplement or applied to the skin, but is an irritant when inhaled. In fact, vitamin E is found in the tissue of almost everyone with lung damage caused by vaping. Long-term or extensive vaping can also lead to bronchiolitis obliterans (also known as popcorn lung), which can cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, or lipoid pneumonia, a serious condition caused when the oily vaping substance causes inflammation in the lungs. The bottom line is that vaping may be slightly less harmful than cigarette smoking, but it’s far from safe and the serious impact to lung health is very real.
- COVID-19. Similar to many other respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause lasting lung damage. Since the disease is so new and doctors and scientists are still learning the long-term impacts, we don’t yet have a full understanding of what this will mean for COVID-19 sufferers during their prolonged recovery and beyond. We do know that the type of pneumonia associated with COVID-19 tends to affect both lungs, is typically severe, and often leads to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) which is a form of lung failure that frequently requires patients to be put on a ventilator. Even after the disease has passed, lung damage may make it difficult to breathe and possibly exacerbate the risk of other lung issues. While more information about the long-term effects of COVID-19 continues to come to light, it’s clearly more important than ever to continue to protect yourself and your family from this very serious disease. Wearing a mask outside of the home, frequently washing your hands and using hand sanitizer, avoiding crowds of people, and steering clear of anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are still the best steps you can take to stay healthy.
The lungs are remarkably resilient, and will work overtime to keep you breathing and your body functioning well. But, lung disease of any type is serious and needs prompt diagnosis and treatment. Talk to your doctor immediately if you or a family member have any of these symptoms:
- A cough that doesn’t go away, gets worse or produces blood
- Chest pain that is worse with coughing, deep breathing, or laughing
- Shortness of breath for no apparent reason
- Becoming much more winded than usual with minimal activity
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic or recurrent bronchitis
This article first appeared in the November 2020 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.