How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy

Exercise stronger, fight the flu better, and other ways this powerhouse part can do more for you.

Lungs have it tough: unlike toned thighs and lean abs, they get no respect, even though they fuel every breath we take and move we make (cue the Police song). Maybe we take 'em for granted because they do their job so well, says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association: "They have incredible capacity and can stay that way throughout your life if you follow some basic healthy habits."

Top of the list: Avoid smoke and air pollution. That's getting easier to do, thanks to new laws that many states have passed against lighting up; meanwhile, the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 early deaths in 2010 alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. Ahead, other ways you can do right by your lungs.

Problem No. 1: Asthma

The lowdown. Despite improved air quality these days, asthma—characterized by the chronic swelling and narrowing of the bronchi—is on the rise, with the number of sufferers surging by 4.3 million in the past decade; about 1 in 12 adults have it. An estimated 60 percent of those are thought to have allergic asthma, which means their symptoms are typically triggered by allergens like dust mites or mold. Almost twice as many women as men have asthma, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Shifting hormones may be to blame, since as many as 40 percent of asthmatic women face worse symptoms just before their periods, when progesterone and estrogen levels are in flux. For the same reason, asthma can worsen during the perimenopausal years, too. Plus, women have at least 5 to 10 percent less lung volume than men, points out Kathleen May, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) and an allergist in Cumberland, Maryland.

What it feels like. People with asthma cough frequently—especially at night, during exercise, or when laughing. They sometimes have trouble breathing and may experience tightness in the chest as well as wheezing.

The Rx. Get diagnosed in an allergist or pulmonologist's office. Treatments include inhaled bronchodilators, such as albuterol, which relax muscles that tighten up around the airways. Your doctor may also prescribe an inhaled combination drug that is a steroid plus a long-acting bronchodilator like formoterol to relieve symptoms, along with drugs such as leukotriene modifiers that block body chemicals involved in airway inflammation. If you've got allergic asthma, you may also want to consider allergy shots.

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Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: October 01, 2012

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