The Systems of the Body The Respiratory System Back to the Basics – Our Body

by Michele Roberts Casey, MD
Falls Pointe Medical Group

August 2010

We really do not think about our respiratory system until a cough or sneeze provides a little reminder. The respiratory system’s main function is to ensure that our bodies absorb life-giving oxygen and gets rid of the non-essential waste known as carbon dioxide. The parts of the body associated with this process include:



Upper Respiratory Tract 

  • Nostrils
  • Nasal cavities
  • Pharynx
  • Epiglottis
  • Larynx
Lower Respiratory Tract 

  • Trachea
  • Bronchi
  • Bronchioles
  • Lungs

When we breathe, air first enters our bodies through the nostrils then moves to the nasal cavity where coarse hairs called vibrissae and mucous filter and trap particles such as dust, pollen and smoke. Next, air moves past the pharynx, which connects the nasal and oral cavities to the larynx and hits the tonsils. Tonsils hinder bacteria from entering the rest of our body and protect us from illness.

What’s a Cough?
Coughing is a reflex that keeps your throat and airways clear. Coughing helps your body heal and protect itself… (read more)

Air then travels to the larynx, which is also known as the voice box. Here, vocal cords produce sound when air passes through them. Located at the end of the larynx is the epiglottis. It closes to prevent food and fluids from entering the trachea and lungs.

Commonly referred to as the windpipe, the trachea essentially continues to clean the air as it moves into the bronchi, bronchioles and into the lungs. The lungs perform the necessary gas exchange to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream via the alveoli and eliminate carbon dioxide from the body by traveling back through the respiratory system and out the nose or mouth.

Anywhere from 12 to 25 breaths/minute is considered normal, at-rest respiration.

Common Respiratory System Problems
ASTHMA — Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease in which the airways become sore and swollen. They become sensitive, often reacting strongly when an allergen (i.e. pollen, pet dander) is present. That swelling and irritation causes the airway to narrow. When the airway narrows, less air is delivered to the lungs. People who have asthma experience coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. There is no cure for asthma, but effective treatments for asthma symptoms are available. It is important to keep your asthma under good control. Poor control leads to irreversible damage to the lungs over time. This damage can affect how well the lungs work.

COMMON COLD — It’s estimated that the average person will have 50 colds in their lifetime. The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system. Most colds clear up in two weeks or less.

SINUSITIS — Commonly known as a sinus infection, sinusitis is a swelling of the inner lining of the sinuses, which blocks the openings in the sinuses through which mucous drains into the nose. That blockage causes pain in the bridge of the nose, above the eyes and/or the teeth. Sinusitis is very common. Some people have acute sinusitis while others have it chronically. Some cases of sinusitis clear up on their own while others require antibiotic treatment. If your symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor to determine whether you need antibiotics.

ALLERGIC RHINITIS — Also known as hay fever, allergic rhinitis is an inflammation of the nasal passages. Airborne substances — dust, pollen, pet dander, pollution — cause the inflammation or allergic reaction. Millions of Americans suffer from allergic rhinitis, which can occur during specific seasons or all year long. Symptoms include sneezing, an itchy, runny nose, an itchy throat and watery eyes. Allergies can improve or worsen with age. Over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines relieve symptoms for most individuals.

CHRONIC OBSTRUCTIVE PULMONARY DISEASE (COPD) — Otherwise known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, COPD is a serious lung disease which makes it hard to breathe. COPD causes a chronic cough, shortness of breath and/or wheezing. The airways are partially blocked so it is hard to get air in and out. Most COPD is caused by a history of smoking. When the COPD is severe, the symptoms can make it hard to do basic tasks like light housework, taking a walk or dressing. Your doctor can order a special test called spirometry to diagnose this disease. If you have shortness of breath, a chronic cough, or trouble performing simple daily tasks because of shortness of breath, if you are over age 40 and smoke or used to smoke, have worked or lived around chemicals or fumes, you could be at risk for COPD and should get tested. Like asthma there is no cure for COPD. However, there are medications that can keep the COPD from worsening and improve the symptoms.


Michele Roberts Casey, MD, and her family medicine physician colleagues at Falls Pointe Medical Group are currently accepting patients of all ages. For more information, visit or call 919.848.9451.


Click here for a complete listing of past Live Well! (health and wellness) articles.


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