Medical experts say exercise, a well-rounded diet and drinking lots of water are key to leading a healthy life.
But those things don't matter as much if one important bodily function isn't working properly: breathing.
“The respiratory system carries out the exchange of gases when we breathe,” said Monica Johnson, a respiratory therapist at Butler Memorial Hospital. “When the lungs are not working properly … it will affect the circulatory system.”
The respiratory system includes a person's lungs, airway and muscles used during the respiration process. In basic terms, respiration supplies the body with oxygen and cleanses it of carbon dioxide.
Johnson, who provides in-patient care at BMH, said good respiratory health means being able to breathe without any problems.
When something compromises the respiratory system — like COVID-19 — the body can develop severe problems.
Johnson said in mild COVID-19 cases, a patient can experience a dry cough or sore throat. A severe case of COVID-19 can inflame the lungs and cause them to fill with fluids.
Johnson said patients in these cases often feel short of breath or have trouble breathing.
“We are not sure of the outcome in all cases,” Johnson said. “But in some instances after a patient has recovered from COVID-19, they have had scarring in the lungs.”
Scarring can make breathing difficult post-infection.
Johnson said challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic have slightly altered the workflow of respiratory therapists.
“This is an airborne virus and a lot of our procedures have had to be substituted to prevent unnecessary exposure,” Johnson said. “Or done in special negative air-flow rooms, which are limited.”
Job 1: Keep everyone breathing
But at the core of the work done by Johnson and her colleagues, nothing has changed.
“We keep everyone breathing,” Johnson said. “It has shown the nation that what we do is very important.”
There are countries where respiratory therapists don't exist, according to Johnson. This means doctors must manage ventilators while nurses handle other medical work. Respiratory therapists are responsible for more than many people know, according to Johnson.
“Most people think we just give breathing … treatments,” Johnson said. “But there's a lot more to it.”
Johnson said aside from monitoring ventilators, the duties of a respiratory therapist include managing CPAP and BPAP machines, drawing arterial blood gasses, providing chest percussion therapy and administering EKGs.
“We must be able to think fast,” Johnson said. “People are counting on us to figure out why a patient is in distress.”
Steps to good respiratory health
Like healthy weight and strong muscles, there are things people can do to practice good respiratory health.
“Stay away from anything that could harm your lungs,” Johnson said.
Though Johnson said this can be challenging in some environments, she recommends avoiding smoking, secondhand smoke and air pollution.
Diaphragm muscles and lung tissue weaken with age. Staying physically active can prevent respiratory decline. Eating foods high in antioxidants and hydrating regularly can help maintain good respiratory health while staying at home.
Johnson said breathing deeply, laughing and getting vaccinated are also good practices.
“Anything you can do to keep your lungs (healthy) is better for you in the long run,” Johnson said.
Johnson said some people can be born with a respiratory condition, like cystic fibrosis. Other conditions are not always preventative and can develop over time, like asthma or lung cancer.
Some respiratory conditions can be corrected. Others can't. In all cases, the patient has to be motivated to improve. It's the responsibility of respiratory therapists like Johnson to offer treatments that relieve symptoms in patients, from newborns to the elderly.
COVID-19 learning curve
Johnson said she and other respiratory therapists have one goal during the pandemic: They want patients to get better.
“What we have learned with COVID-19 is we have a lot more to learn,” Johnson said. “There is still a ton of research to be done to learn what the long-term effects will be.”
Johnson said the number of deaths related to a respiratory disease was rising even before COVID-19 hit, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recording 9 million American adults being diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and 3.8 million with emphysema in 2018.
A common misconception about poor respiratory health people have is “it won't happen to me,” according to Johnson. She believes it's important people don't take breathing well for granted.
“Just be aware of what you can control,” Johnson said.