Frequently, in light of the fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and the condition of the respiratory system is one determinant of how someone will fare with the disease, I am asked: “Is there something that can done to strengthen the health of the lungs?”
Yes! There are actions you can take to improve your respiratory health — here’s how you can strengthen your body’s respiratory capacity.
Your lungs are a hard-working organ, that never rests—even when you are asleep. Its primary function is to bring oxygen into our bodies and get rid of carbon dioxide, a waste product.
Oxygen is essential to every single cell—there are approximately 3 trillion of them—as a life-sustaining fuel. Too, because they are directly connected to the outside environment, they serve as a conduit as well as our body’s first-line of defense, against harmful germs, including COVID-19, substances (dust, chemicals), and other undesirables from entering our system. Lungs often don’t get their due credit in understanding or care — until there’s problems breathing.
COVID-19 Attacks Lungs
A respiratory disease, the COVID-19 virus enters mucus membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) and travels to – and attacks lung tissue. The virus enters a healthy cell and uses the cell to reproduce. It multiplies, and the new viruses infect nearby cells and multiply there too.
The immune system fights back to control the infection, which can lead to inflammation and damage of the lungs and airways. This prevents oxygen exchange and carbon dioxide removal, leaving a patient gasping for air and suffering with more illness.
Improve Your Respiratory Health
While enhancing your respiratory health will not prevent you from getting infected, it does have benefits that may reduce the severity of COVID, if you’re infected.
- Stop Smoking/Vaping. The only thing that should be inhaled into your lungs is oxygen–not cigarette smoke, vapor, or cannabis. These chemicals can irritate, inflame, or cause permanent damage to the lung’s delicate tissues which are necessary to take in oxygen. And, too, smoking has been shown to impair the body’s immune system which is essential to fight off infection.
- Avoid External Irritants. Beware of smoke! Candles and fireplaces emit smoke that can be inhaled into your lungs. Ensure good ventilation when lighting a candle or enjoying a fire. Additionally, chemicals in household cleaning products can damage your lungs as much as smoking cigarettes. As we strive to keep surfaces clean to decrease the spread of COVID-19, be cautious of inhaling the fumes.
- Exercise. Being physically active promotes expansion of the tiny, air sacs in your lungs (called alveoli) that are responsible for oxygen entering your body and carbon dioxide leaving. When sedentary, they collapse, and gas exchange becomes inefficient. Exercise also boosts your immune system, decreasing inflammation, while helping you maintain a healthy body weight.
- Keep a Healthy Body Weight. Excessive fat presses up against the diaphragm and impedes alveoli from properly filling, as well as increases resistance when we breathe. If you are overweight, make it a goal to lose 1-2 pounds a week by decreasing caloric intake and increasing caloric burning.
- Breathing Exercises. They help strengthen your chest wall muscles. Lung capacity is determined by how much air you can hold and remove from your body. Despite the average male being able to take in 6 liters of air (female 4 liters), we generally only use around 10% of that in a regular breath (tidal volume). Take a moment now to inhale maximally with your mouth, then close (purse) your lips and exhale through them (sort of like blowing up a balloon).
- Laugh! Along with feeling good – laughing encourages deep breaths while expanding your lungs and working your abdominal muscles.
- Mucus Management. Too thick or excessive mucus can occur from being dehydrated, cigarette smoking, irritants, allergies, or having a respiratory infection. It can become a breeding ground for germs and block gas exchange in your lungs or even exacerbate asthma. Make sure to drink plenty of water, avoid smoking and irritants, manage allergen exposure and symptoms, and consider eating spicy foods because they can thin your mucus.
Research shows that silent spreaders are responsible for 40-50% of COVID-19 transmission — making universal masking essential to help protect you and to slow the spread. Studies also show properly worn cloth face masks provide a major protective benefit along with frequent handwashing, avoiding touching your face and maintaining at least 6-feet distance between you and people.
Too, make sure you’re eating well, keeping hydrated, getting quality sleep and finding effective ways to manage stress during this pandemic. These actions will better equip your respiratory and immune system to resist and fight off diseases, when they are well taken care of.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.