How to keep your lungs in good shape

Lungs are vital organs in the body. Without well-functioning lungs it’s difficult to live a healthy life. That’s why experts urge everyone to always carry out regular checkups to ensure that their lungs are in good shape. They also warn against lifestyles that put the health of lungs at risk.

According to Simon Pierre Niyonsenga, the director of diabetes, renal and chronic respiratory diseases at Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC), the human lungs are a pair of large, spongy organs optimised for gas exchange between our blood and the air, located just below the rib cage and above the diaphragm.

He says lungs are an important part of the respiratory system, and that our bodies require oxygen in order to survive. Lungs provide us with that vital oxygen while also removing carbon dioxide before it reaches hazardous levels.

Conditions associated with lungs

According to Dr Marie Aimee Muhimpundu, the non-communicable diseases division manager at Rwanda Biomedical Centre, lungs can have a wide range of problems that can stem from genetics, bad habits, an unhealthy diet and viruses.

She points out that some of the most common chronic respiratory diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, occupational lung diseases and pulmonary hypertension.

For instance, Niyonsenga says asthma is a lung disease where the air passage ways in the lungs become inflamed and narrowed, making it hard to breath.

For COPD, he says it is not one single disease but an umbrella term used to describe chronic lung diseases that cause limitations in lung airflow due to excess mucus or the degeneration of the lungs. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are both considered COPD diseases.

“Lung cancer manifests as coughing up blood, a cough that doesn’t go away, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, headaches, hoarseness, weight loss and bone pain,” says Niyonsenga.

Lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia, are usually caused by viruses, but can also be caused by fungal organisms or bacteria, according to Niyonsenga.

Further, Muhimpundu notes that with an aging global population, chronic respiratory diseases are becoming a more prominent cause of death and disability. They account for four million deaths a year globally. In Rwanda 5 per cent of consultations in non-communicable diseases clinics countrywide are due to chronic respiratory diseases.

She notes that diseases such as asthma, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung infections are the common diseases associated with lungs.

Risk factors

Rachna Pande, an internal medicine specialist, says the primary cause of most chronic respiratory diseases is tobacco smoke (including second-hand or passive exposure), indoor air pollution, such as the use of biomass fuels for cooking and heating causes high chronic respiratory diseases burden.

“Indoor pollution is a big burden to most of the developing countries. This is because the big population uses biomass for cooking,” she says.

Pande points out that this is even much more compared to outdoor causes.

“This is so because most people are being exposed to this smoke while at an early age, and still grow up while being exposed which makes it easy for them to develop respiratory diseases,” she adds.

Other risk factors for chronic respiratory diseases, Francis Kazungu, a general practitioner in Kigali, says include occupational dusts and chemicals (such as vapors, irritants, and fumes) and frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood.

The solution to these kinds of diseases, he says is to prevent and adopt a good lifestyle including quitting smoking and avoiding indoors and out-door pollution.

Strategies in place to prevent respiratory diseases

Muhimpundu says RBC together with other partners has put in place some strategies to ensure people practise prevention measures all over the country.

For instance, she says they encourage people to avoid using biomass in cooking but rather embrace other alternatives (biogas) that are still cheap but safe for their health.

“We are also putting much emphasis in promoting good lung health by educating people to quit smoking and advocating to have smoke-free area in different facilities such as bars and hotels,” she adds.

Also, they are working with City of Kigali in supporting monthly car free day in promoting green economy. Here, Muhimpundu says, they are encouraging people to walk instead of using cars that emit a lot of fumes which are harmful.

“Promoting pollution-free cities and improved quality air in homes by reducing indoor pollution caused by tobacco smoking and firewood and planting of trees is essential,” she says.

“We are availing treatment services at health centre level so that people get diagnosed early and obtain proper follow-up. The earlier the diagnosis the better, but when one has chronic respiratory diseases, it’s not possible to be cured, Rather, such people are given medication and other treatments that relieve and also prevent further complications,” adds Muhimpundu.

She notes that much as there is treatment to relieve symptoms, when one continues to get exposed to factors that contribute to lung diseases, the condition gets worse.

“That’s why it’s important for them to avoid exposure to any factor that leads to respiratory diseases. Also taking medicine as prescribed by physician is important as well,” says Muhimpundu.