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.

Next Page: Problem No. 2: Acute bronchitis [ pagebreak ]
Problem No. 2: Acute bronchitis


The lowdown. Bronchitis typically occurs when an infection causes the lining of your bronchial tubes to become inflamed. "That leads to mucus production and airway obstruction," says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. Acute bronchitis is often caused by viruses but can also be a bacterial or, more rarely, a fungal infection. A bout can linger for up to 10 days, though a cough may persist. Play it safe and see your doctor to rule out pneumonia, which occurs when the infection reaches lung tissue. If you smoke or have asthma, you're more likely to have acute bronchitis symptoms.

What it feels like. Sufferers have a deep cough, which may produce clear or yellow mucus. It's sometimes accompanied by wheezing, a low fever, and chest tightness or pain.

The Rx. See your doctor in case you need antibiotics. Otherwise, treat symptoms with rest, fluids, and Tylenol for aches or fever. Vitamin C and zinc could help shorten your suffering, Dr. Schachter says. If you're wheezing, your doc may prescribe an inhaler.

Problem No. 3: COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

The lowdown. "COPD is an umbrella term for chronic bronchitis and emphysema," Dr. Edelman says. It affects about 6 percent of women in the U.S., and not just the elderly. COPD is the third leading cause of death in this country behind heart disease and cancer. Most cases are seen in current or former smokers, but about 10 to 20 percent of COPD patients, particularly women, are nonsmokers. Other risk factors include your family history and working in an environment with poor air quality.

What it feels like. A constant cough (often one that produces a lot of mucus), shortness of breath or trouble breathing, or wheezing.

The Rx. If you notice symptoms—and especially if you're a smoker—see your doctor. You'll get the same screening test you would for asthma, in addition to a full physical exam. Your doc may also recommend a chest CAT scan, a highly sensitive way to pinpoint COPD, or a chest X-ray. If you've got COPD, the most important thing you can do (if you haven't already) is to stop smoking. Treatment may involve medications such as bronchodilators, or anti-inflammatory drugs such as inhaled steroids. It's also crucial to get a yearly flu shot and a pneumonia shot every 5 to 10 years, since you're more at risk for developing complications from either.