Your Respiratory System and Asthma

An asthma patient’s guide to how the respiratory system works, with tips on keeping asthma under control.

Asthma is a common respiratory condition that affects over 26 million adults and children in the United States. Here's a look at how the respiratory system works and how asthma impacts the respiratory system.

Upper respiratory tract
The main parts of the upper respiratory system include the nose, mouth, throat and voice box. When you breathe in through your nose, the nasal cavity warms the air to keep it from irritating your sensitive airways. Cilia and mucus in the nasal passages trap germs and allergens. Once air is warmed and purified, it travels from your nose down to your throat and voice box and into the lower portion of your respiratory system.

Lower respiratory tract
The lower respiratory tract is made up of the windpipe and lungs, including the bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli. The air moves down through your windpipe and into the bronchi. Airways that branch off into the lungs have cartilage embedded in their walls to keep the bronchi open. Inside the lungs, these airways then move into smaller passages called bronchioles. These are susceptible to swelling and constriction because there is no cartilage to hold them open.

The bronchioles end in air sacs called alveoli. These sacs change the carbon dioxide in your blood into oxygen, which then goes to your heart and through the rest of your body. The remaining carbon dioxide is removed when you breathe out. Your diaphragm, located beneath your lungs, helps facilitate the process by pumping air in and out of the lungs.

Asthma and the respiratory system
When asthma kicks in, this chronic condition can cause swelling in the lining of the bronchial tubes. Excess mucus can form and clog the air passages. The smooth muscle that surrounds your airways can also tighten or go into spasms.

Avoiding the impact of asthma
These simple steps can help you keep your respiratory system healthy:

  • Avoid triggers. Triggers can include air pollution, illness, indoor and outdoor allergens, cigarette smoke, fumes, respiratory illnesses, cold air and physical activity.
  • Use medications as directed. Your fast-acting relief inhaler is essential to reverse the tightening and spasms that occurs with an asthma flare, but in order to prevent asthma attacks from occurring, you must be using your long-acting control medicines as directed.
  • Monitor your symptoms. Pay attention to how you're feeling, and use a peak flow meter (a plastic tube that measures your breathing capacity) to get an idea of how well your lungs are functioning.
  • Reduce stress. Practice deep breathing exercises such as yoga or meditation and engage in regular cardiovascular exercise to increase your lung capacity.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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