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What is the Respiratory System?

Allison Boelcke
By Allison Boelcke
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The respiratory system is a group of organs that supply the body with oxygen. The system consists of the nose, mouth, throat, lungs, and diaphragm. These organs work together to convert the air that is breathed in into oxygen for the blood. The body’s cells require oxygen in order to function, so if the respiratory system does not work properly, it can cause serious health complications or even be fatal.

The process of receiving oxygen from the respiratory system begins when a person inhales air from the outside through his or her nose or mouth. Once the outside air makes it way into the body, it travels into the throat. The first area of the throat the oxygen passes through is the larynx, also known as the voice box, which is responsible for speech. Oxygen then goes through the trachea, also known as the windpipe, which is a thin cylinder that connects the bottom of the larynx down into the chest.

The chest cavity is the main location of the majority of the respiratory system organs. The bottom of the trachea divides into two cylinders known as bronchi. Oxygen travels through the bronchi into the alveoli, which are millions of small pockets of air. These little pockets hold inhaled air and deliver it into the bloodstream. They also take unneeded products from the bloodstream, such as carbon dioxide, so it can be prepared to exit the body.

The respiratory system is also the process of ridding the body of carbon dioxide, a chemical produced by cells that cannot be used for energy. When the alveoli bring down the carbon dioxide from the bloodstream, it goes back up to exit through the same organs that brought the oxygen in. The diaphragm is a muscle group located in the chest and both constricts and loosens during the breathing process. It controls the simultaneous entrance of fresh oxygen and exit of carbon dioxide. During the diaphragm constriction, fresh oxygen enters the body, and carbon dioxide exists during the loosening of the diaphragm.

When a part of the respiratory system fails to function correctly, it can make breathing difficult. A common respiratory condition is bronchitis, in which the bronchial tubes become irritated and end up making too much mucus. That extra mucus makes a person with bronchitis cough profusely in an attempt to clear the mucus out of the bronchi. A more serious, lifelong respiratory condition is asthma, in which the lungs constrict in the presence of dust, smoke, or any other substances that are inhaled. People with asthma may not be able to breathe on their own when their lungs constrict and will have to use an inhaler, a device that helps loosen the lungs with medication.

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Discussion Comments

By anon244050 — On Jan 30, 2012

What does it mean if you have a had a cough for the last four months and I'm always having to cough up mucus so I can breathe? I have seen the doc and he prescribed me e-mycin which does nothing to fix the problem. My xray did say high volume respiratory. Has anyone had this problem? Do I have lung cancer?

By cfmom — On Jan 26, 2011

The short answer is that the body does not process salt correctly, causing extra mucous in the lungs and sometimes the digestive tract. There is not only more of it, but it is thicker that regular mucous. This makes it more difficult to expel, creating an issue much like the one described in the article that is cause by bronchitis. However, bronchitis can be cured, CF cannot. This is a very simplified answer, but maybe it will be useful in your research @aarons.

By aarons — On Jan 24, 2011

Anyone know anything about how Cystic Fibrosis affects the respiratory system?

By anon121797 — On Oct 25, 2010

you helped me a lot. thank you!

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