As a person goes through life healthy and unburdened, he tends to take the tiny details of living for granted. How he can see and perceive the world clearly and vividly, how easily he can walk from place to place or up and down the stairs, how pleasurably he can eat anything without worry. Until the passage of time takes its toll and age catches up with him, he will most likely overlook his simple fortune of being able to breathe properly.

Breathing is perhaps the single most important action human beings do daily. Eating, drinking, or sleeping all fall under it as it would be literally impossible for a normal person to go five minutes without air. Taking care of the lungs, the organs responsible for this vital function, is necessary for a long and healthy life.

According to data gathered by the World Health Organization, four out of the top 10 causes of death around the world are due to respiratory and pulmonary problems. These 10 causes account for more than half (54%) of the 56.4 million deaths worldwide in 2015, and lung problems account for a major part of them.

“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) claimed 3.2 million lives in 2015, while lung cancer (along with trachea and bronchus cancers) caused 1.7 million deaths,” the World Health Organization reported on its Web site.

“Lower respiratory infections remained the most deadly communicable disease, causing 3.2 million deaths worldwide in 2015. [Meanwhile] tuberculosis killed fewer people during the same period, but is still among the top 10 causes with a death toll of 1.4 million,” the report added.

So how does one take care of his or her lungs? Like any part of the human body, keeping one’s lungs healthy means choosing and maintaining healthy lifestyle choices. The lungs in particular already have a natural defense system designed to protect itself from dirt and unwanted invaders, so all that’s left would be to keep it in good shape.

The American Lung Association (ALA) suggests a number of ways one might do this, but perhaps the most significant method of reducing the risk of lung diseases is the eschewal of smoking.

“Cigarette smoking is the major cause of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema,” the ALA said on its Web site.

“Cigarette smoke can narrow the air passages and make breathing more difficult. It causes chronic inflammation, or swelling in the lung, which can lead to chronic bronchitis. Over time cigarette smoke destroys lung tissue, and may trigger changes that grow into cancer. If you smoke, it’s never too late to benefit from quitting,” it added.

Individuals who smoke regularly and over a long period of time have a greater risk of lung cancer and COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Even secondhand smoke, which is much harder to avoid, is harmful too.

Contact with air pollution, which can be found indoors as well as outdoors, also need to be minimized. Chemical pollutants, ozone, and radon can cause and worsen lung disease. Sources of these harmful particulates range from construction materials and wood-burning stoves to even air fresheners, pet dander and candles.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency, which keeps up-to-date information on air quality in the US, recommends a three-pronged approach: Eliminate pollution sources, improve indoor ventilation, and use air cleaners to remove particulate matter.

Harmful particles or gases can even be found in simple home activities like cleaning. Cleaning products can contain chemicals like volatile organic compounds, ammonia, and bleach, and one must ensure that he is well-protected when using such products. Always work in a well-ventilated area, and use a dust mask for safe cleaning habits.

Preventive measures

Of course, in an environment devoid of much pollution keeping one’s physical fitness becomes a trivial thing. People who live in the cities, however, do not have much choice. Smoke and pollution are almost everywhere, and it would be nothing short of a miracle to avoid them completely. In these conditions, building a robust defense system would be essential in keeping one’s lungs healthy.

Respiratory infections, even common ones such as cold and flu, can sometimes become serious if not treated properly, and especially so if coupled with other lung problems. Protection and prevention are the key against common threats. Getting the flu shots in time for flu season, or the pneumococcal vaccine for the elderly can be the difference between going disease-free and succumbing to illness.

Further steps can be taken to avoid similar infections, such as frequent hand-washing, avoiding crowds during flu season, getting plenty of rest, eating well and avoiding too much stress. Exercise, especially aerobic exercises, will help maintain cardiorespiratory fitness.

“Aerobic exercise helps improve your lung capacity. Specific breathing exercises can also help improve your lung function. Exercise and breathing techniques are also great for improving your mood and helping you relax,” the ALA said.

Dealing with common lung problems

Due to the common nature of colds and coughs, it can sometimes be hard to know when an illness is serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. Filipinos are stubborn at this. Our frugal nature comes at the expense of our own well-being, with many Filipinos refusing to go to a hospital unless their illness is life-threatening. But health should always come first in such situations, and it is absolutely imperative that diseases be treated as soon as possible, for them not to get worse.

“Regular checkups help prevent diseases, even when you are feeling well. This is especially true for lung disease, which sometimes goes undetected until it is serious,” the ALA said.

If your coughs last for more than a few weeks to a month, or if you have a hard time breathing with little or no physical exertion, you should see a doctor. More glaring symptoms like wheezing, coughing up blood or coughing up phlegm for more than a month need to be examined at a hospital as soon as possible.

Easy it may be to overlook, breathing is one the most fundamental functions of the human body. Like the heartbeat, each breath punctuates each moment of our lives, pushing our bodies to go on living. That one is able to breathe freely and without problems is a blessing in itself, a blessing that many do not have. — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran