Take care of your lungs today, and you’re more likely to breathe easier in the years to come.
Some respiratory problems are easily treated if they’re properly diagnosed, say physicians, and many are preventable. The most important factors relating to respiratory health other than genetics and family history are smoking, air pollution and obesity.
First line of defense
Your respiratory system–which includes the nose, throat, windpipe and lungs–brings air into your body when you breathe. In the lungs, the oxygen from each breath is transferred to the bloodstream and sent to all of the body’s cells as life-sustaining fuel.
The lungs are different from most of the other organs in your body because their delicate tissues are directly connected to the outside environment. Anything you breathe in can affect them, including germs, tobacco smoke and harmful substances like dust and chemicals. The resulting respiratory ailments can range from allergies and asthma to pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even lung cancer, which kills more women than breast, cervical and ovarian cancers combined, according to the American Lung Association.
Secondhand smoke dangers
Smoking has long been the primary cause of respiratory illness, but new studies suggest that secondhand smoke can cause the same problems as direct smoking. Secondhand smoke can lead to a 30 percent increase in the incidence of heart disease and a sharp rise in the risk of lung cancer and lung infections. For children, the dangers are even greater and include the development of asthma and COPD later in life.
Children exposed to secondhand smoke face an increased prevalence of respiratory disease, ear and sinus infections, oral disease, and many long-term complications such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. There is also a hypothesis that smoking during pregnancy may be associated with high risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD].
Poor respiratory health can also lead to other problems, such as sleep apnea, a condition in which inadequate breathing–or even the stoppage of breathing–during sleep reduces oxygen delivery to the heart and brain.
It’s not just the lack of sleep that’s a problem but also the fact that it’s an un-refreshing sleep that leaves you feeling fatigued the next day. Due to repeated dips in oxygen levels caused by sleep apnea, it can lead to pulmonary hypertension which causes shortness of breath, largeness of the heart and swelling of the extremities, and significantly shortens life.
Menopause plays a crucial role in the frequency and severity of sleep apnea. Before menopause, women have half the incidence of men in terms of sleep apnea. After menopause, the rate doubles. It’s thought to be because the protective effect of female hormones is removed.
Losing weight and quitting smoking can help alleviate mild sleep apnea. For more severe cases, your doctor may recommend sleeping with a device that opens up the airway, or even surgery.
Unfortunately, many women ignore respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath or a cough that won’t go away. If you’re experiencing these kinds of problems, it’s time to check in with your physician. Don’t despair if you’re a smoker or former smoker and think you’ve already damaged your lungs beyond repair: You can still improve your respiratory health so that you can lead an active lifestyle.
Each successive year after stopping smoking leads to the lessening of effects and slows down the smoking-related cumulative damage to the lungs. Stopping smoking is the single most important thing a smoker can do to slow down the deterioration of their respiratory system.
7 ways to improve your respiratory health
- Stop smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
- Avoid indoor and outdoor air pollution.
- Avoid exposure to people who have the flu or other viral infections.
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- See your doctor for an annual physical.