Quick look – how does the respiratory system work?

human lungs, trachea and nasopharynx, medical poster with explanations

In the old days, doctors would either place newborns on a cold slab of granite or hold them upside down and smack them. What a welcome to the world. The purpose was to encourage the freshly birthed new person to take a sharp breath, thus kick-starting their respiratory system and resulting in a lifelong obsession with breathing. Thankfully, medical procedures have moved on a bit from the days of mild torture. But the respiratory system hasn’t changed a bit. The in and out movement of your chest is all thanks to a flawless design that takes in air, filters out the oxygen for transportation in the bloodstream, and breathes out waste gas and the parts of the air for which we have no use. Clever. Simple and clever. 

However, things can – and do – go wrong. Due to the huge surface area of the lungs and their constant exposure to potential airborne contaminants, lung conditions are common, with lung cancer being a frequent concern as a cancer that is known to spread rapidly. See where does lung cancer spread to first?. Now, let’s get on with the lesson.

The movers and the shakers in the respiratory game

The major parts of the respiratory system are as follows: mouth, nose, windpipe, diaphragm, bronchial tubes, lungs, air sacs, and capillaries. That’s quite a shopping list. Putting all of these things together in order and in the right proportion is what allows you to exchange fuel in the form of oxygen for waste in the form of carbon dioxide (otherwise known as inhalation and exhalation). Now let’s look at how it works.

Breathing – the basics

If you’ve never heard of your diaphragm, don’t worry. It’s simply a muscle that contracts and relaxes to create air pressure, causing air to rush in through your nose and mouth into your lungs, before naturally resetting and causing decompression of the chest cavity to breathe out. The lungs are made of around 600 million microscopic sacs called alveoli, which are surrounded by tiny blood vessels with thin walls called capillaries. Oxygen in the air enters the sacs and passes through the cell membrane into the capillaries for transport around the body. At the same time, carbon dioxide is deposited into the sacs for expulsion when breathing out. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a whistle stop tour of how we are able to blow up balloons every birthday. 

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