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Breathing Easier
How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy for Life

Take a deep breath. In … and out. We do this at least 17,000 times a day, usually without realizing how important it is to our overall health and well-being.

man breathing easierOur lungs perform an incredible function each time we breathe in — oxygen fills the lungs and moves through the bloodstream to every cell in our body, exchanging itself for carbon dioxide (waste), which is then exhaled. Our body’s cells need oxygen to live, and lungs that aren’t up to this task can seriously affect your quality of life.

While our body’s respiratory system naturally works to defend your lungs from harmful irritants in the air we breathe, it can only do so much. Every day, along with oxygen, our lungs take in a myriad of air pollutants, from cigarette smoke to vehicle exhaust and cleaning product fumes. As a result, the lungs can be affected by a range of mild to serious illnesses, including asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia and cancer. Treatments are available, but there are also plenty of things you can do to take care of your lungs.

Quit Smoking (or Don’t Ever Start)

Over time, cigarette smoking greatly decreases the lungs’ functional abilities. But, believe it or not, the lungs start to repair themselves within just three months of quitting. It only takes up to nine months after quitting for the cilia (tiny hair-like structures in the airways), which help clean the lungs and reduce infection risk, to work as if the person has never smoked.

stamped out cigaretteSmoking is also the leading cause of lung cancer and COPD, according to the American Lung Association. Lung cancer, the number one cancer killer of both men and women in the U.S., is generally aggressive and usually detected at a late stage in a majority of patients. Screenings to catch the cancer early in those at high risk — namely current and former smokers — are strongly recommended.

“If lung cancer is detected at an early stage, you can treat it and this will translate into decreased mortality,” says Dr. Adnan Majid, Director of Interventional Pulmonology in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “The National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), which screened high-risk individuals for lung cancer with low-dose CT scan, showed a 20 percent decrease in deaths.”

If you currently smoke or are a former smoker, you can be tested for lung cancer at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham. In May, BID-Needham announced a new lung cancer screening program using low-dose CT scans. The specialists who review patients’ scan results also discuss with them things like smoking cessation, lung cancer risk, and, if necessary, lung cancer treatment options.

Adnan Majid, MD, and Sidhu Gangadharan, MD“Even if a high-risk patient has nothing on a scan, he or she should not take that as a green light to smoke because the risk of lung cancer does not go away,” says Dr. Sidhu Gangadharan, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at BIDMC.

COPD, which encompasses emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is another type of lung disease that causes breathing to become increasingly difficult.

Up to 90 percent of deaths from COPD are caused by smoking. While there is no cure, quitting smoking is one of the only ways to prolong life for those with COPD. Certain medications can also help.

“With medication, you can control symptoms and prevent the progression of the disease,” says Dr. Majid who, along with Dr. Gangadharan, is part of the multidisciplinary team in the COPD and Emphysema Clinic at BIDMC. “If COPD is caught early enough, smoking cessation and treatment with medication will decrease the progression.”

Avoid Air Pollution

Exposure to secondhand smoke, outdoor air pollution, and chemicals found in the home and workplace (including those in cleaning products, paint, or air fresheners) can also cause or worsen lung diseases and conditions. These types of irritants are generally found to be the cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers.

Here are several ways you can reduce the risk of lung irritation and infection in your environment:

  • Keep your home and vehicle smoke-free
  • Test your home for radon
  • Ventilate the area when using strong cleaning chemicals
  • Spend minimal amounts of time (and don’t exercise) outside when air quality is bad
  • Follow safety instructions and take the proper precautions around known chemicals or pollutants in your workplace
  • Talk to your doctor if you think something in the air you breathe is making you ill

Prevent Respiratory Infections

Colds and viral infections can often lead to more serious respiratory infections. That's why it's important — during cold and flu season especially — to wash your hands frequently and try to avoid contact with those who are sick. The flu shot is also a vital protective measure, as cases of the flu can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia.

woman coughing

Pneumonia is potentially the more serious of the two illnesses. It can develop both virally or from bacteria and can affect the ability to breathe, cause shortness of breath and chest pain, and lead to more critical lung injury, even death, if untreated.

“When the Centers for Disease Control refers to deaths from the flu, they are talking about people who are usually dying of lung complications, typically bacterial pneumonia,” says Dr. Michael Wong, an infectious disease specialist at BIDMC.

There are also vaccines to prevent against bacterial pneumonia. It is recommended for children under 5 as well as adults over the age of 19 who smoke or have asthma.

Asthma, a chronic respiratory infection, has many potential causes, including genetics and allergies. Keeping the home free of pollutants such as cigarette smoke, animal dander and dust mites — all known asthma triggers — will help avoid flare-ups and may help prevent asthma in children. However, some behaviors can worsen asthma symptoms and lead to more serious conditions.

“If a patient already has asthma and decides to smoke, for example, he or she might develop COPD,” Dr. Majid says. “It’s important to note that most cases of COPD are preventable.”

Healthy Life = Healthy Lungs

A generally healthy lifestyle will also help protect your lungs from illness. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise benefits your entire body and its process of fueling your cells with oxygen. Eating well and staying active can also be very helpful in managing chronic lung disease.

So be aware of what you may be breathing in, whether you’re at home, at work, or just outside. Remember the simple things you can do to stay healthy: If you’re a smoker, try to quit. Get your flu shot every year, and practice good hand hygiene during cold and flu season. Your lungs will thank you.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care and before starting any exercise program, consult your doctor.

July 2014


Contact Information

Chest Disease Center
Department of Surgery
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
West Campus, Farr Entrance - Deaconess Building, Suite 201
185 Pilgrim Road
Boston, MA 02215

Contact Information

Division of Pulmonology, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215