Save the Music

Protect Your Lungs

If you want to learn the harmonica, sing a song or just whistle a tune, you need healthy lungs. So it’s important to take care of them. The ability to breathe properly is not only essential for singing or playing a wind instrument, it’s fundamental to good health. So don't take your lungs’ health for granted — even if you don’t smoke.

Your lungs work 24 hours a day nonstop, breathing in vital oxygen and exhaling dangerous carbon dioxide (and other toxins). Your lungs play a major role in your immune system, too. Pollutants and infection-causing microbes are captured by mucus in the lungs and pushed upward and out of the lungs by tiny hairlike cilia. Sneezing is another way the lungs rid the body of infection and pollution.

Your lungs are amazing in other ways, as well. Each one has thousands of branching tubes that end in tiny air sacs. There are over 300 million of these tiny sacs in your lungs. Their membranes are thinner than tissue paper. So thin that gases pass right through them. Your lungs are delicate, yet strong. And with all they do for you, it’s only right that you take good care of them. 

Control Your Condition

If you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), do your best to keep it under control. Avoid your known triggers. Take your preventive medications to reduce the risk of asthma attacks. And if your condition warrants it, keep rescue medications on hand at all times.

Don't skimp on vaccinations, either. Respiratory infections can be particularly devastating if you have COPD or other lung problems. So do your best to ward off respiratory infections. Get the flu shot in time for flu season, and if you're 65 or older, get the pneumococcal vaccine, too. Finally, wash your hands frequently, avoid crowds during peak flu season, get plenty of rest, eat well and keep your stress levels under control.

Don't Smoke ... Anything

Smoking is the worst thing you can do for your lungs. The more you smoke, the greater your risk of lung cancer, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. There's no “safe” threshold, either. Secondhand smoke is harmful. And there's mounting evidence that even thirdhand smoke is dangerous. That means if you go someplace where people smoked previously, you’re at risk.

The most obvious rule is don’t smoke — anything! Don’t just quit cigarettes. Pipes, cigars and marijuana will damage your lungs, too. We still don’t know the risk e-cigarettes might pose. Even smokers know smoking causes lung cancer. But did you know smoking also destroys the cilia that help remove infection and pollutants from your airways? This not only results in clogged airways, it leaves infectious and cancer-causing particles in the respiratory system. Not good.

Other Dangers

Air pollution has been a hot topic for decades. And it can be hard to avoid. In many places, ozone and other pollutants make outdoor activities — even leisure time — an unhealthy gamble. And it’s worse during the summer months. Those with lung disease are especially sensitive to pollutants. But air pollution isn't confined to the out-of-doors. There are numerous indoor sources of air pollution. Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, mold, pet dander, construction materials — even air fresheners and candles can pose an unhealthy risk to your lungs. Common household activities, like cleaning, personal hobbies and home improvements, can expose your lungs to harmful particles or gases, too.

So how do you protect yourself? By choosing safer products, working in a well-ventilated area and using a dust mask, for starters. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a three-pronged approach: eliminate sources, improve ventilation and use air cleaners. (The EPA is an independent agency that provides some health information on behalf of your health plan.)

Protect yourself on the job. Many jobs pose a real danger to your lungs — from construction work to styling hair. A growing condition known as occupational asthma accounts for approximately 15 percent of asthma cases. Some causes include dust particles, paint fumes, diesel exhaust and a chemical called diacetyl that’s used to give food a buttery flavor. So, if your employer provides protective equipment, wear it.

Finally, check for radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in the ground. It typically leaks into buildings through cracks in the foundation and walls. Radon is the main cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, and the second leading cause of the disease after smoking. For more information, check the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality website.

Fit as a Fiddle

Exercise is important for healthy lungs. It doesn’t necessarily strengthen the lungs as they rely on the diaphragm muscle, but any improvement of the cardiovascular system makes the job of your lungs easier. Shoot for 30 minutes of daily activity. You can even break it up into smaller time frames. Park your car farther from the store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, get up from your desk and walk around the building, do some jumping jacks or just walk the neighborhood. The point is this — any physical activity is better than sitting on the couch.

Eat smart. There is evidence that antioxidant-rich foods are good for your lungs. They seem to have a protective effect. Research also suggests it must be food, not supplements. All those leafy green cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, kale and more) are rich in antioxidants. While your diet may not directly affect your lungs, food — like exercise — indirectly touches them through the cardiovascular system by providing antioxidant protection. Eating well goes hand in hand with exercise in keeping your lungs clear and healthy. Fresh, raw foods are the best way to get the enzymes, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that keep your lungs breathing easy.

And don’t forget the water. Water plays a huge role in health. Water is the base of all cleansing action. Pure, clean water is essential to keeping blood flowing to and from the lungs. It also keeps your lungs hydrated and the mucus flowing. Remember, the cilia use mucus to move toxins, microbes and pollutants out of your lungs.

Finally, know the warning signs. If you have a cough for more than a month, or if you have a hard time breathing with little or no physical exertion, you should see a doctor. Wheezing, coughing up blood or coughing up phlegm for more than a month are also danger signs. And if you have chest pain lasting a month or longer, get it checked out ASAP — particularly if breathing in or coughing makes it worse. For more detailed information about healthy lungs, visit the American Lung Association. (The American Lung Association is an independent organization that provides some health information on behalf of your health plan.)