Skip to main content

You are here

How your lungs work

What else do the lungs do?

On this page we explain the importance of your lungs, what can damage them and what you can do to protect your lungs.

What else do my lungs do?

The lungs are exposed to the air, so they also play an important protective role in your body, linked to your immune system. Each breath of air doesn’t only carry oxygen, it also carries germs and other foreign bodies such as pollutants. As a result, your lungs are also designed to prevent unwanted materials from getting into your body.

Mucus (a thick liquid) is produced in the walls of the small airways to help keep your lungs clean and well lubricated. It is moved by tiny hairs called cilia that line your airways. They move back and forth sweeping a thin layer of mucus out of your lungs and into your throat. Unwanted materials stick to the mucus. When it reaches the throat, it’s usually swallowed without you realising.

If your mucus builds up or if you have an inflammation, coughing can help to clear it from the airways.

The delicate structure of your lungs is beautifully adapted to breathe and, at the same time, helps protect your body from harm.

What can damage my lungs?

Your lungs can be damaged if you breathe in cigarette smoke, air pollution (both outside and inside the home) or dusts and fumes in the workplace over a sustained period of time. If your airways get damaged, you can get more breathless over time. Sometimes, the cause of lung damage is unknown.

How can I protect my lungs?

It can be hard to protect yourself from environmental risks such as air pollution. But you can help protect your lungs by quitting smoking, improving the air quality in your home and doing what you can to reduce your exposure to air pollution.

If in the workplace you’re regularly exposed to things that might damage your lungs, like brick dust or sawdust, you must make sure you’re wearing the correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE). For example, a protective face mask.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, stopping smoking is the best thing you can do for your health and your lungs. Your health care professional and pharmacist can help you find ways that make it easier for you. You’re around three times as likely to quit with help from support services and medication. We have more information to help you stop smoking for good.

Try to keep active

Keeping active is one of the best things you can do for your lungs, especially if you have a lung condition.

There’s plenty of support and advice for you on how to keep active. You can increase everyday activities like walking or gardening. Or you could join an exercise class at your local leisure centre or community hall. You could also speak to a health care professional about a referral to a local pulmonary rehabilitation programme.

To get started, take a look at our online exercise videos and download our free exercise handbook. Help keep yourself motivated by downloading our 12-week activity diary.

Managing breathlessness

How breathless you feel doesn’t always match up with results from lung function tests and scans. This is because it’s not just lung function that affects how out of breath you feel. Breathlessness is also affected by the way you breathe, your lifestyle and how you think and feel about your breathing.

Read more about breathlessness in our online information, including advice on how to manage feeling breathless and the different treatment options available.

Download our how your lungs work information (PDF 883KB)

We use your comments to improve our information. We cannot reply to comments left on this form. If you have health concerns or need clinical advice, call our helpline on 03000 030 555 between 9am and 5pm on a weekday or email them.

Last medically reviewed: February 2021. Due for review: February 2024

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.