COVID-19: When healthy lungs mean life or death

We know that COVID-19 targets the lungs. It's never been more critical to keep them strong and resilient.

Jordan Heuvelmans 5 minute read May 14, 2020
female doctor with stethoscope on back on male patient

COVID-19 makes lung health critical. Stock/Getty

Our lungs are some of the most important organs in our body, as we breathe in about 22,000 times a day. Maintaining proper care of our lungs is important, especially now with the threat of COVID-19, a respiratory illness that can lead to severe symptoms in the lungs. It’s more important than ever to keep our lungs safe, strong and resilient.

Why your lungs are a big deal

Breathing is a vital function of the body, and our lungs are responsible for bringing oxygen into the body to help keep us alive. When you breathe in, it’s known as inhalation, while breathing out is known as exhalation. Our lungs breathe fresh oxygen into the body to the blood, removing the carbon dioxide and other waste gases. The lungs are a major function of our respiratory system, which also includes airways, muscles, blood vessels and tissues that all help make breathing possible.

The brain controls how much air we breathe in depending on what we’re doing. If we’re playing or exercising, the brain tells the lungs to work faster (which is why you breathe more deeply or heavily whenever you’re active). If we’re asleep or resting, the brain tells the lungs to slow down.


Smoking: The worst thing for your lungs, but not the only thing that’s bad

The number one worst thing you can do to your lungs is smoke cigarettes. Smoking damages the lungs’ natural cleaning and repair system. It can trap cancer-causing chemicals which can cause permanent damage to the lungs, according to the Canadian Lung Association.

And in case you have seen recent reports that doctors are seeing a smaller number of smokers admitted to hospital, it’s not the puffing on a cigarette that experts are tying to the trend, but actually the exposure to nicotine.

Smoking permanently damages the alveoli (air sacs) inside the lungs, which make it harder to breathe over time. Symptoms of lung damage can include feeling out of breath when doing small tasks like walking up a short set of stairs, coughing, repeated chest infections, and spitting up mucus. If left untreated, over time, symptoms will get worse, leading to a high risk for other illnesses including cancer. Even if you don’t smoke, you can still get sick from tobacco if you breathe it in from other smokers around you, known as second-hand smoke.

When it comes to vaping, there’s still a lot of uncertainty on its long-term impacts on the body as researchers continue to study its effects. However, experts say that there are significant health risks that can lead to lung disease.

While smoking is the leading cause of lung disease, there are several other things that can cause damage to your lungs. Radon gas (a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in the ground) is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. If there are high levels of radon in your home or workplace, it could leak through cracks in the walls or foundation, and linger in the air you breathe.

Air quality can also impact our lungs. Air pollution both in and outside the home can come from sources such as vehicles, fires, cleaning solutions and industrial facilities. Even genetics can play a role, as the Canadian Lung Association notes that many lung diseases are genetic in nature, rather than the result of a behaviour or environment.


Lung disease is a real thing for many Canadians

Lung disease is a very real concern for many people in Canada. A 2007 report found that over three million Canadians are affected by one of five respiratory diseases: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, tuberculosis (TB), and cystic fibrosis.

Another 2019 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) also revealed that COPD was one of the top five reasons for hospitalizations in Canada, while lung cancer continues to be one of the leading causes of death for men and women.


Protecting our lungs

Despite the risks to our lungs, there are several ways that you can work towards improving your lung function and preventing, or decreasing, your chances of lung disease. One of the best things you can do is stop smoking, or avoid exposure to second-hand or third-hand smoke (smoke carried on hair, clothes or skin), as it increases your risk of cancer and COPD.

Whenever you’re inside, reduce indoor air pollution such as mold, dandruff, and animal hair by cleaning your furnace air filter seasonally, avoiding aerosols like hairspray, and use the exhaust fan whenever you cook. Be aware of the air around you both in and outside, as air pollutants such as idle running cars and exhaust pollution can contribute to lung disease, and worsen existing lung conditions.

It’s also a good idea to see your doctor if you’re experiencing shortness of breath, wheezing, dizziness or a persistent cough. And keep in mind, that if you have lung disease, you are more vulnerable to complications from illnesses like the flu, so it’s important to keep vaccinations up-to-date.

While lung disease is a real threat, the bottom line is that if you take care of your lungs, they’ll take care of you.

Jordan Heuvelmans is a freelance journalist with You can follow her on Twitter at @JordanHeuvelm

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