When we think about our lungs, we usually think about two things: what it takes to yell real loud, and how hard we are breathing during and immediately after strenuous activity, such as exercise, lifting or moving heavy objects, or performing yard work for an hour or more.
Here’s the things about lungs, though: they are a vital part of our body, much like our heart or head, and they deserve a lot of attention and TLC. A lot can go wrong with our lungs; the consequences can range from influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia to lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Getting all of this information out into the open isn’t meant to frighten you, only to make you more aware of what can go wrong if you don’t take great care of your lungs. Stop smoking if you have already started; be aware of what you are breathing in (substances and particles seen and unseen); and, yes, pick out the right foods to include in your diet.
Knowing this, you can breathe a little easier, right? October is National Healthy Lung Month, which is good timing considering that this is the time of year when our lungs can really start acting up because of pollens, molds and drastic changes in weather, so prevalent at this time of year.
Here is a summary of several of the most common, and in some cases, serious, health hazards directly affecting our lungs:
- Bronchitis. A nasty viral infection that can endure several weeks to beyond a year, with symptoms that include a hacking cough and plenty of phlegm. Heightened forms include chronic bronchitis and acute bronchitis, all of which warrant a visit and perhaps sustained care with your physician or perhaps a specialist.
- Pneumonia. A virus-induced infection of the lungs characterized by chills, fever, tiredness, coughing, sore threat and even chest pain. Your chance of getting pneumonia goes up if you smoke or drink a lot of alcohol.
- Emphysema. A form of chronic lung disease in which breathing is made difficult because of a reduced ability to blow air out. Smoking is the leading cause.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. A long-term disease of the lung, and it can include either emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Sufferers not only get the persistent cough and rivers of mucus, they experience frequent shortness of breath. The most common cause of emphysema is smoking; experts say that includes pipe smoking as well as cigars and marijuana.
- Lung cancer. Let’s be blunt: it’s the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. And you can get it even if you’ve never lit up. Secondhand smoke can also be a factor, and there’s even something called third hand smoke. Bottom line: don’t start smoking; if you do, stop now—your lungs can improve in time.
OK, we’ll stop with the bad news. In no particular order, here are a dandy dozen things to do (or not do) to keep our lungs as close to pristine as we can get them (we left out not smoking because that point has been made):
1. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Frequent use of antibacterial soap rubbed into your hands is a good idea too.
2. Eliminate chronic or long term stress which can take a huge toll on your immune system.
3. If you get sick with flu or a cold, be kind to others – stay home until you feel better and you are confident you are no longer contagious.
4. Exercise religiously, not necessarily with a lot of intensity, but be consistent. Aerobic exercise can improve lung capacity, and breathing exercises can enhance lung function.
5. Get plenty of rest.
6. Drink water throughout the day to keep nasal passages moist and flush out toxins.
7. Augment diet with antioxidants such as apples, oranges and tomatoes.
8. Speaking of diet, carrots, yellow squash and dark, leafy greens are sources of carotenoids that noted health food expert Dr. Andrew Weil says have lung-protective properties.
9. Dr. Weil also suggests whole-soy foods, for their phytoestrogens which can help protect throughout the body.
10. Monitor outdoor-air quality for pollutants and prepare accordingly.
11. Indoor air pollution is also a threat. Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves in poorly ventilated areas are a known threat to lungs. Mold, pet dander, some construction materials and even air fresheners could be lurking dangers.
12. When choosing products to be used in the home, such as for hobbies and DIY projects, read labels carefully and know what to be looking for. Consider using a dust mask.