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Defense Mechanisms of the Respiratory System

By

Rebecca Dezube

, MD, MHS, Johns Hopkins University

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
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The average person who is moderately active during the daytime breathes about 20,000 liters (more than 5,000 gallons) of air every 24 hours. Inevitably, this air (which would weigh more than 20 kilograms [44 pounds]) contains potentially harmful particles and gases. Particles, such as dust and soot, mold, fungi, bacteria, and viruses deposit on airway and alveolar surfaces. Fortunately, the respiratory system has defense mechanisms to clean and protect itself. Only extremely small particles, less than 3 to 5 microns (0.000118 to 0.000196 inches) in diameter, penetrate to the deep lung.

Cilia, tiny muscular, hair-like projections on the cells that line the airway, are one of the respiratory system's defense mechanisms. Cilia propel a liquid layer of mucus that covers the airways.

The mucus layer traps pathogens (potentially infectious microorganisms) and other particles, preventing them from reaching the lungs.

Cilia beat more than 1,000 times a minute, moving the mucus that lines the trachea upwards about 0.5 to 1 centimeter per minute (0.197 to 0.4 inch per minute). Pathogens and particles that are trapped on the mucus layer are coughed out or moved to the mouth and swallowed.

Alveolar macrophages, a type of white blood cell Components of the Immune System The immune system is designed to defend the body against foreign or dangerous invaders. Such invaders include Microorganisms (commonly called germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi) Parasites... read more on the surface of alveoli, are another defense mechanism for the lungs. Because of the requirements of gas exchange Exchanging Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide The primary function of the respiratory system is to take in oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide. Inhaled oxygen enters the lungs and reaches the alveoli. The layers of cells lining the alveoli... read more , alveoli are not protected by mucus and cilia—mucus is too thick and would slow movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Instead, alveolar macrophages seek out deposited particles, bind to them, ingest them, kill any that are living, and digest them. When the lungs are exposed to serious threats, additional white blood cells in the circulation, especially neutrophils Neutrophils One of the body's lines of defense (immune system) involves white blood cells (leukocytes) that travel through the bloodstream and into tissues, searching for and attacking microorganisms and... read more , can be recruited to help ingest and kill pathogens. For example, when the person inhales a great deal of dust or is fighting a respiratory infection, more macrophages Monocytes and Macrophages One of the body's lines of defense (immune system) involves white blood cells (leukocytes) that travel through the bloodstream and into tissues, searching for and attacking microorganisms and... read more are produced and neutrophils are recruited.

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Test your knowledge
Air Pollution-Related Illness
Illnesses linked to air pollution are categorized as environmental lung diseases. Exposure to air pollution for an extended period may increase respiratory infections and symptoms of respiratory disorders, such as coughing. In which of the following groups is long-term exposure to air pollution especially likely to increase respiratory infections and symptoms of respiratory disorders?
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