To sustain life, the body must produce sufficient energy. Energy is produced by burning molecules in food, which is done by the process of oxidation (whereby food molecules are combined with oxygen). Oxidation involves carbon and hydrogen being combined with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water. The consumption of oxygen and the production of carbon dioxide are thus indispensable to life. It follows that the human body must have an organ system designed to eliminate carbon dioxide from the circulating blood and absorb oxygen from the atmosphere at a rate rapid enough for the body’s needs, even during peak exercise. The respiratory system enables oxygen to enter the body and carbon dioxide to leave the body.
The respiratory system starts at the nose and mouth and continues through the airways and the lungs. Air enters the respiratory system through the nose and mouth and passes down the throat (pharynx) and through the voice box, or larynx. The entrance to the larynx is covered by a small flap of tissue (epiglottis) that automatically closes during swallowing, thus preventing food or drink from entering the airways. (See also Overview of the Respiratory System.)
Environmental lung diseases are caused by harmful particles, mists, vapors, or gases that are inhaled, usually while people work. If the lung disease is due to inhaled particles, the term pneumoconiosis is often used.
Interstitial lung disease (also called diffuse parenchymal disease) is a term used to describe a number of different disorders that affect the interstitial space. The interstitial space consists of the walls of the air sacs of the lungs (alveoli) and the spaces around blood vessels and small airways. Interstitial lung diseases result in abnormal accumulation of inflammatory cells in lung tissue, cause shortness of breath and cough, and have similarities in their appearance on imaging studies but are otherwise unrelated. Some of these diseases are very unusual.
The pleura is a thin, transparent, two-layered membrane that covers the lungs and also lines the inside of the chest wall. The layer that covers the lungs lies in close contact with the layer that lines the chest wall. Between the two thin flexible layers is a small amount of fluid (pleural fluid) that lubricates them as they slide smoothly over one another with each breath. The area containing the fluid is called the pleural space.
Pulmonary embolism is the blocking of an artery of the lung (pulmonary artery) by a collection of solid material brought through the bloodstream (embolus)—usually a blood clot (thrombus) or rarely other material.
Sleep apnea is a serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops long enough to disrupt sleep and often temporarily decrease the amount of oxygen and increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood.