Save your breath this winter

by Karen Bowen

During the winter months, people often experience issues with their lungs. Did you know that the average resting adult breathes 12 to 15 times each minute? This means that you take over 17,000 breaths a day and over six billion breaths each year! Maintaining healthy lungs is important for your overall well-being.

With each breath, your respiratory system carries out a life-sustaining gas exchange. It takes in oxygen to feed your cells and removes carbon dioxide waste from your cells. It also uses its own filtering system – your nose hairs, to trap impurities in the air you have inhaled. The filtered air then travels down your windpipe (trachea), through the two main bronchial tubes to the lungs. Very small protrusions (cilia) line these bronchial tubes and continue removing impurities by carrying mucus, dust, and germs upward from the lungs to be expelled with a cough or sneeze.

The bronchial tubes branch into smaller and smaller tubes throughout the lungs similar to a tree root. The smallest tubes (bronchioles) end in small air sacs (alveoli). The alveoli transport oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the bloodstream via the capillaries that are embedded in their walls.

Pneumonia occurs when alveoli become inflamed or filled with liquid and cannot efficiently absorb oxygen or expel carbon dioxide. Before antibiotics were developed in the 1930s, pneumonia was a leading cause of death. Now, pneumonia is treatable, but it is still a serious condition for infants, young children, people over 65, and/or people with underlying health problems or weakened immune systems.

The most common type of pneumonia, community-acquired pneumonia (CAP), is caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or other organisms and is spread the same way as influenza or the common cold – in tiny droplets from people’s mouths and noses and/or by touch. Any cold and flu viruses can also cause pneumonia, depending on where they settle. In the throat, sinuses, and upper respiratory tract, they cause a cold. In the lungs, they cause pneumonia.

Pneumonia often presents like a cold or flu, but its signs and symptoms last longer, including: fever, sweating and shaking chills; a low-grade fever or drop in body temperature for people over 65, and for people with poor overall health or weakened immune systems; cough, which may produce thick, sticky fluid; chest pain when breathing deeply or coughing; shortness of breath; severe bad breath, fatigue and muscle ache; loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; headache; and/or blue lips and nail beds. Older people with pneumonia may show sudden changes in mental alertness.

You will be more prone to pneumonia if you smoke cigarettes, or have chronic lung disease; asthma; heart disease; liver disease; diabetes; a weakened immune system; recent surgery or trauma; and/or if you’ve had pneumonia before.

If you suspect you have pneumonia, visit your doctor if you have: difficulty breathing; shortness of breath, shaking chills, or persistent fevers; excessive sweating and clammy skin; chest pain that gets worse when you cough or breathe in; fast or painful breathing; persistent fever of more than 102 F (39 C); or persistent cough, especially if that cough produces bloody or rust-coloured mucus.

For older adults and people with heart or lung problems, pneumonia can quickly become a life-threatening condition, so always consult a doctor immediately if you have these symptoms and are over 65 with an underlying health condition or weakened immune system.

Your treatment for pneumonia will probably occur at home and will include curing the infection and avoiding complications. For bacterial pneumonia, an appropriate antibiotic will be prescribed. Once treatment begins, your symptoms should improve within three days (twice as long for smokers). If your symptoms don’t improve as expected, your doctor will likely try a different antibiotic. For viral pneumonia, antiviral medications will be prescribed, but your symptoms generally won’t start to improve for one to three weeks.

Use aspirin or ibuprofen to bring down your fever. Use just enough cough medicine to get rest. However, coughing is necessary to break down and move fluid from your lungs, so let yourself cough during the day to dislodge and expel phlegm and ensure proper healing.

To recover fully, take the antibiotics as prescribed until they are gone, even after you start to feel better. Drink plenty of liquids (not alcohol) to flush the infection. To speed your healing and loosen the sticky mucus, occasionally breathe warm, moist air through a warm, wet washcloth; use a humidifier; breathe deeply for a minute each hour to expand your lungs; and to dislodge mucus, tap your chest while lying with your head lower than your chest.

Better yet, do what you can to protect yourself against infection and avoid pneumonia completely. Wash your hands regularly and/or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Don’t smoke. Stay rested and fit.

Healthy lungs are nothing to sneeze at!

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