Skip to main content

Respiratory System: Our Avenue for Gas Exchange

A woman watches her exhaled breath turn to steam in cold weather.
The respiratory system is what allows us to breathe and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

The human respiratory system is a series of organs responsible for taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. The primary organs of the respiratory system are the lungs, which carry out this exchange of gases as we breathe. 

The lungs work with the circulatory system to pump oxygen-rich blood to all cells in the body. The blood then collects carbon dioxide and other waste products and transports them back to the lungs, where they're pumped out of the body when we exhale, according to the American Lung Association.

The human body needs oxygen to sustain itself. After only about five minutes without oxygen, brain cells begin dying, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which can lead to brain damage and ultimately death. [Gasp! 11 Surprising Facts About the Respiratory System]

In humans, the average breathing, or respiratory rate, mostly depends on age. A newborn's normal breathing rate is about 40 to 60 times each minute and may slow to 30 to 40 times per minute when the baby is sleeping, according to Stanford Children's Health. The average resting respiratory rate for adults is 12 to 16 breaths per minute, and up to 40 to 60 breaths per minute during exercise, according to the European Respiratory Society.

Parts of the respiratory system

As we breathe, oxygen enters the nose or mouth and passes the sinuses, which are hollow spaces in the skull that help regulate the temperature and humidity of the air we breathe. 

From the sinus, air passes through the trachea, also called the windpipe, and into the bronchial tubes, which are the two tubes that carry air into each lung (each one is called a bronchus). The bronchial tubes are lined with tiny hairs called cilia that move back and forth, carrying mucus up and out. Mucus is a sticky fluid that collects dust, germs and other matter that has invaded the lungs and is what we expel when we sneeze and cough. 

The bronchial tubes split up again to carry air into the lobes of each lung. The right lung has three lobes while the left lung has only two, to accommodate room for the heart, according to the American Lung Association. The lobes are filled with small, spongy sacs called alveoli, which is where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. 

From the trachea, air enters the bronchial tubes which split up and reach into the three lobes of the right lung and the two lobes of the left lung. 

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The alveolar walls are extremely thin (about 0.2 micrometers) and are composed of a single layer of tissues called epithelial cells and tiny blood vessels called pulmonary capillaries. Blood in the capillaries picks up oxygen and drops off carbon dioxide. The oxygenated blood then makes its way to the pulmonary vein. This vein carries oxygen-rich blood to the left side of the heart, where it is pumped to all parts of the body. The carbon dioxide the blood left behind moves into the alveoli and gets expelled in our exhaled breath. 

The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the lungs, controls breathing and separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. When air gets taken in, the diaphragm tightens and moves downward, making more space for the lungs to fill with air and expand. During exhalation, the diaphragm expands and compresses the lungs, forcing air out.

Infographic on the respiratory system. Click the image to enlarge. 

(Image credit: Ross Toro, Livescience contributor)

Respiratory system diseases

Diseases and conditions of the respiratory system fall into two categories: Infections, such as influenza, bacterial pneumonia and enterovirus respiratory virus, and chronic diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). According to Dr. Neal Chaisson, who practices pulmonary medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, there is not much that can be done for viral infections but to let them run their course. "Antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses and the best thing to do is just rest," he said. 

For most healthy individuals, the most common respiratory ailment they may face is an infection, according to Dr. Matthew Exline, a pulmonologist and critical care expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. A cough is the first symptom, possibly accompanied by a fever. [The Gross Science of a Cough and a Sneeze]

"However, cough can be a sign of chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema," he said. "In chronic lung disease, most respiratory diseases present with shortness of breath, initially with exertion, such as walking a significant distance or climbing several flights of stairs."

Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the lung airways that causes coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath, according to Tonya Winders, president of the Allergy & Asthma Network. These signs and symptoms may be worse when a person is exposed to their triggers, which can include air pollution, tobacco smoke, factory fumes, cleaning solvents, infections, pollens, foods, cold air, exercise, chemicals and medications. According to the CDC, more than 25 million people (or 1 in 13 adults and 1 in 12 children) in the United States have asthma.

Coughing is usually the first sign of a respiratory infection.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

COPD, sometimes called chronic bronchitis or emphysema, is a chronic and progressive disease where the air flow in and out of the lungs decreases, making it harder to breathe. Over time, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and thicken, making it harder to get rid of waste carbon dioxide, according to the American Lung Association. As the disease progresses, patients experience a shortness of breath, and it can limit activity. More than 15 million Americans are affected by COPD, according to the CDC

Lung cancer is often associated with smoking, but the disease can affect nonsmokers as well. It is the second most common cancer for both men and women, outranked by prostate and breast cancers, respectively. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2019, there will be about 228,150 new cases of lung cancer (116,440 in men and 111,710 in women) and around 142,670 deaths from lung cancer (76,650 in men and 66,020 in women) in the United States. 

Additional resources: 

This article was updated on Aug. 23, 2019, by Live Science Contributor Sarah Derouin.