LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Identify the location and function of each part of the respiratory system, and recall the process of respiration.

Respiration is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the cells of the body. There are two phases of respiration:

• Physical, or mechanical, respiration involves the motion of the diaphragm and rib cage. The musculoskeletal action, which resembles that of a bellows, causes air to be inhaled or exhaled.

• Physiological respiration involves an exchange of gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide, at two points in the body. The first is the transfer that occurs in the lungs between the incoming oxygen and the carbon dioxide present in the capillaries of the lungs (external respiration). The second transfer occurs when oxygen brought into the body replaces carbon dioxide build up in the cellular tissue (internal respiration).

Normally, oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in equal volumes; however, certain physiological conditions may throw this balance off. For example, heavy smokers will find that the ability of their lungs to exchange gases is impaired, leading to shortness of breath and fatigue during even slight physical exertion. This debilitating situation is the direct result of their inability to draw a sufficient amount of oxygen into the body to replace the carbon dioxide build-up and sustain further muscular exertion. On the other hand, hyperventilation brings too much oxygen into the body, overloading the system with oxygen, and depleting the carbon dioxide needed for balance.


Air enters the nasal chambers and the mouth, then passes through the pharynx, larynx, trachea, and bronchi into the bronchioles. Each bronchiole is surrounded by a cluster of alveoli (fig. 1-39).

Figure 1-39.—Organs of the respiratory system.

Nasal Cavity

Air enters the nasal cavity through the nostrils (nares). Lining the nasal passages are hairs, which, together with the mucous membrane, entrap and filter out dust and other minute particles that could irritate the lungs. Incoming air is warmed and moistened in the chambers of the nasal cavity to prevent damage to the lungs. The nasal and oral cavities are separated by the palate. The anterior, rigid portion is called the hard palate, and the posterior fleshy part is called the soft palate. The mouth and nose serve as secondary respiratory structures.


The pharynx, or throat, serves both the respiratory and digestive systems and aids in speech. It has a mucous membrane lining that traps microscopic particles in the air and aids in adjusting temperature and humidifying inspired (inhaled) air. The pharynx connects with the mouth and nasal chambers posteriorly. According to its location, the pharynx is referred to as the nasopharynx posterior to the nasal chambers), the oropharynx (posterior to the mouth), or the laryngopharynx (posterior to the pharynx).


The epiglottis is a lid-like, cartilaginous structure that covers the entrance to the larynx and separates it from the pharynx. It acts as a trap door to deflect food particles and liquids from the entrance to the larynx and trachea.


The larynx, or voice box, is a triangular cartilaginous structure located between the tongue and the trachea. It is protected anteriorly by the thyroid cartilage (commonly called the Adam's apple), which is usually larger and more prominent in men than in women. During the act of swallowing, it is pulled upward and forward toward the base of the tongue. The larynx is responsible for the production of vocal sound (voice). This sound production is accomplished by the passing of air over the vocal cords. The ensuing vibrations can be controlled to produce the sounds of speech or singing. The nose, mouth, throat, bone sinuses, and chest serve as resonating chambers to further refine and individualize the voice.


The trachea, or windpipe, begins at the lower end of the larynx and terminates by dividing into the right and left bronchi. It is a long tube composed of 16 to 20 C-shaped cartilaginous rings, embedded in a fibrous membrane, that support its walls, preventing their collapse (fig. 1-39).

The trachea has a ciliated mucous membrane lining that entraps dust and foreign material. It also propels secretions and exudates from the lungs to the pharynx, where they can be expectorated.


The bronchi are the terminal branches of the trachea, which carry air to each lung and further divide into the bronchioles.


The bronchioles are much smaller than the bronchi and lack supporting rings of cartilage. They terminate at the alveoli (fig. 1-40).


The alveoli are thin, microscopic air sacs within the lungs (fig. 1-40). They are in direct contact with the pulmonary capillaries. It is here that fresh oxygen exchanges with carbon dioxide by means of a diffusion process through the alveolar and capillary cell walls (fig. 1-41). The lungs are cone-shaped organs that lie in the thoracic cavity. Each lung contains thousands of alveoli with their capillaries. The right lung is larger than the left lung and is divided into superior, middle, and inferior lobes. The left lung has two lobes, the superior and the inferior.

Figure 1-40.—Bronchiole and alveoli.


Figure 1-41.—Pulmonary exchange at alveolus.



The pleurae are airtight membranes that cover the outer surface of the lungs and line the chest wall. They secrete a serous fluid that prevents friction during movements of respiration.


The mediastinum is the tissue and organs of the thoracic cavity that form a septum between the lungs. It extends from the sternum to the thoracic vertebrae and from the fascia of the neck to the diaphragm. The mediastinum contains the heart, the great blood vessels, the esophagus, a portion of the trachea, and the primary bronchi.


The diaphragm is the primary muscle of respiration. It is a dome-shaped muscle and separates the thoracic and abdominal cavities. Contraction of this muscle flattens the dome and expands the vertical diameter of the chest cavity.

Intercostal Muscles

The intercostal muscles are situated between the ribs. Their contraction pulls the ribs upward and outward, resulting in an increase in the transverse diameter of the chest (chest expansion).

Inhalation is the direct result of the expansion caused by the action of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. The increase in chest volume creates a negative (lower than atmospheric) pressure in the pleural cavity and lungs. Air rushes into the lungs through the mouth and nose to equalize the pressure. Exhalation results when the muscles of respiration relax. Pressure is exerted inwardly as muscles and bones return to their normal position, forcing air from the lungs.


The rhythmical movements of breathing are controlled by the respiratory center in the brain. Nerves from the brain pass down through the neck to the chest wall and diaphragm. The nerve that controls the diaphragm is called the phrenic nerve; the nerve that controls the larynx is the vagus nerve; and the nerves that control the muscles between the ribs are the intercostal nerves.

The respiratory center is stimulated by chemical changes in the blood. When too much carbon dioxide accumulates in the blood stream, causing the blood to become acidic, the respiratory center signals the lungs to breathe faster to get rid of the carbon dioxide.

The respiratory center can also be stimulated or depressed by a signal from the brain. For example, changes in one's emotional state can alter respiration through laughter, crying, emotional shock, or panic.

The muscles of respiration normally act automatically, with normal respiration being 14 to 18 cycles per minute. The lungs, when filled to capacity, hold about 6,500 ml of air, but only 500 ml of air is exchanged with each normal respiration. This exchanged air is called tidal air. The amount of air left in the lungs after forceful exhalation is about 1,200 ml and is known as residual air.