The average adult takes 15 to 20 breaths per minute. Each breath filters air and transfers oxygen through the bloodstream to keep organs, joints, muscles and bones strong. During November, Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we should take the time think about ways to keep our lungs healthy.

The lungs differ from other organs in that they are delicate tissues subject to the influence of environment.  While many lung diseases have genetic components, some of our most common occur from environmental exposures and lifestyle habits. They include the following conditions.

  • The damage and destruction of lung tissue from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) limits air flow, making it progressively more difficult to breath.  A diagnosis typically includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both. 
  • Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways characterized by coughing and chest congestion. The condition is considered chronic if it lasts for at least three consecutive months per year, for two years.
  • Emphysema is the gradual destruction of lung tissue. The main symptom is shortness of breath that worsens over time.
  • Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of both men and women in the United States. More people die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. It occurs when abnormal cells cluster in a tumor, destroying the lung tissue around it.
  • Pneumonia is a lung infection that usually starts from the breathing of germs into the lungs. People who smoke, abuse alcohol, are malnourished, have other chronic lung conditions or other chronic illnesses, have an increased risk of pneumonia.
  • Asthma is characterized by inflamed airways that make them susceptible to environmental triggers - such as weather, dust and smoke - that further swell the airways and make breathing even more difficult. It tends to run in families, but environmental factors also play a role.
  • Pulmonary fibrosis scars thicken lung tissue, making it more difficult to breathe. The damage can occur from exposure to toxins and pollutants, such as asbestos fibers and silica dust in certain occupations such as mining.

The American Lung Association recommends several precautions to protect the lungs and minimize the risk of these diseases. Among them are the following.

  • Don't smoke. Cigarette smoking is directly responsible for 90 percent of lung cancer deaths and 80 to 90 percent of COPD cases. Smoking affects nearly every organ in the body, but is especially damaging to the lungs. No matter how long you have been smoking, it is never too late to stop. Human lung tissue begins to heal once smoking has ceased.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants. Secondhand smoke, outdoor air pollution and chemicals in the workplace can all cause or worsen lung disease. The American Lung Association recommends maintaining a smoke-free home and car, testing your home for radon gas, and avoiding outdoor exercise on bad air days.
  • Prevent infection. Diseases such as chronic bronchitis and pneumonia can be prevented by frequently washing your hands, receiving an annual flu shot and avoiding crowds during flu and cold seasons. People who already have lung disease should seek medical attention as soon as possible if they suspect a lung infection.

Many treatments can ease symptoms and slow progress, but lung disease is not curable. The best defense is the practice of good lung health.

By: Dr. Bradley R. Harrold, MD, a pulmonologist  with  OhioHealth Pulmonary Physicians and a member of the OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital medical staff