Over the last half century, technology has made possible the probing of the solar system and galaxy beyond. People can instantly correspond with anyone in the world. We can see—in real time—events and phenomena heretofore only reported by second and third hand accounts. Yet with all of the distance breached by modern devices, we are also able to know in detail the goings on inside our own bodies. With the advent of computed tomography (CT) imaging, known familiarly as “CAT scans,” doctors and their patients now get a bird’s eye view of internal organs. This scientific know-how goes beyond simple x-rays to reveal cross-sections of tissue. Few parts of the anatomy benefit from this to the degree of the lungs.
Lungs – The Ins and Outs
The lungs are porous organs on each side of the chest that receive and dispel air. Air is received through the windpipe, or trachea, and its oxygen is transmitted into the bloodstream by means of tiny sacs called alveoli. These sacs work in two directions as they also remove carbon dioxide from the blood and enable its exhalation. This exchange of oxygen and CO2 is called respiration. With each breath the lungs expand and contract, movement made smoother by the covering of pleura, a membrane lubricated by thoracic fluid. Comprised of sections, the right lung has three lobes whereas the left lung has two. Operating without obstruction, the lungs supply oxygen to the cells of the body while disposing of waste gases that would otherwise be toxic.
Without Air to Spare – Lung Diseases and Pathologies
There are many and various conditions that can afflict the lungs. Some are congenital; others, environmental; and still many others, due to the intentional ingestion of toxins, e.g. smoking cigarettes. A clear example of inborn lung disorders is asthma, where the bronchial tubes (extended from the trachea) swell from inflammation, causing contractions and shortness of breath. Of course, asthma can also result from allergies and viral infections. Another genetic lung complication is cystic fibrosis, when mucus accumulates without dissipating. Environmental disorders include mesothelioma, a form of cancer that is connected with long-term exposure to asbestos. For those in the eastern and central United States, histoplasmosis is a type of pneumonia that comes from certain fungi native to these regions.
Tobacco – The Greatest Offender
Among the thousands of chemicals found in tobacco smoke are found arsenic, lead and tar. Responsible for over 438,000 deaths each year, cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. In addition, 41,000 losses of life are related to second-hand smoke. Tobacco smoking is implicated in chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, when exhalation becomes so compromised as to create shortness of breath. Chronic bronchitis is yet another consequence of smoking, as is emphysema—when the delicate walls between alveoli are eroded and air is trapped within the lungs. Looming large over them all is lung cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society projects 222,500 new cases of lung cancer in 2017…and 155,870 deaths from same.
Moving Away from Tobacco
Cancer and other degenerative lung diseases can be detected with low-dose computer tomography. This spiral method of CT releases small amounts of radiation, enough to create resolute images of the lungs. If small nodules or other irregularities appear, the physician may order a biopsy for confirmation. With this vivid information now available, it is no surprise that many smokers are looking to transition from tobacco. One option that is gaining traction is the e-cigarette. Although these devices may deliver small amounts of nicotine, they are primarily stocked with vape juices, i.e. vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG). VG is a vegetable-based thickener and sweetener; PG, an additive used for flavoring and coloring. Composed of such matter, e-cigarettes provide smokers with another option as they consider the effects of tobacco.