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Respiration is defined in two ways. In common usage,
respiration refers to the act of breathing, or inhaling and
exhaling. Biologically speaking, respiration strictly means the
uptake of oxygen by an organism, its use in the tissues, and the
release of carbon dioxide. By either definition, respiration has
two main functions: to supply the cells of the body with the
oxygen needed for metabolism and to remove carbon dioxide formed
as a waste product from metabolism. This lesson describes the
components of the upper respiratory tract.
The upper respiratory tract conducts air from outside the
body to the lower respiratory tract and helps protect the body
from irritating substances. The upper respiratory tract consists
of the following structures:
The nasal cavity, the mouth, the pharynx, the epiglottis,
the larynx, and the upper trachea. The oesophagus leads to the
digestive tract.
Jne of the features of both the upper and lower respiratory
tracts is the mucociliary apparatus that protects the airways
from irritating substances, and is composed of the ciliated
cells and mucus-producing glands in the nasal epithelium. The
glands produce a layer of mucus that traps unwanted particles as
they are inhaled. These are swept toward the posterior pharynx,
from where they are either swallowed, spat out, sneezed, or
blown out.
Air passes through each of the structures of the upper
respiratory tract on its way to the lower respiratory tract.
When a person at rest inhales, air enters via the nose and
mouth. The nasal cavity filters, warms, and humidifies air. The
pharynx or throat is a tube like structure that connects the
back of the nasal cavity and mouth to the larynx, a passageway
for air, and the esophagus, a passageway for food. The pharynx
serves as a common hallway for the respiratory and digestive
tracts, allowing both air and food to pass through before
entering the appropriate passageways.
The pharynx contains a specialised flap-like structure
called the epiglottis that lowers over the larynx to prevent the
inhalation of food and liquid into the lower respiratory tract.
The larynx, or voice box, is a unique structure that
contains the vocal cords, which are essential for human speech.
Small and triangular in shape, the larynx extends from the
epiglottis to the trachea. The larynx helps control movement of
the epiglottis. In addition, the larynx has specialised muscular
folds that close it off and also prevent food, foreign objects,
and secretions such as saliva from entering the lower
respiratory tract.
The lower respiratory tract begins with the trachea, which
is just below the larynx. The trachea, or windpipe, is a hollow,
flexible, but sturdy air tube that contains C-shaped cartilage
in its walls. The inner portion of the trachea is called the
The first branching point of the respiratory tree occurs at
the lower end of the trachea, which divides into two larger
airways of the lower respiratory tract called the right -ronchus
and left bronchus. The wall of each bronchus contains
substantial amounts of cartilage that help keep the airway open.
Each bronchus enters a lung at a site called the hilum. The
bronchi branch sequentially into secondary bronchi and tertiary
The tertiary bronchi branch into the bronchioles. The
bronchioles branch several times until they arrive at the
terminal bronchioles, each of which subsequently branches into
two or more respiratory bronchioles.
The respiratory -ronchiole leads into alveolar ducts and
alveoli. The alveoli are bubble-like, elastic, thin-walled
structures that are responsible for the lungs' most vital
function: the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Each structure of the lower respiratory tract, beginning
with the trachea, divides into smaller branches. This branching
pattern occurs multiple times, creating multiple branches. In
this way, the lower respiratory tract resembles an upside-down
tree that begins with one trachea trunk and ends with more
than 250 million alveoli leaves. Because of this resemblance,
the lower respiratory tract is often referred to as the
respiratory tree.
In descending order, these generations of branches include:
O trachea
O right bronchus and left bronchus
O secondary bronchi
O tertiary bronchi
O bronchioles
O terminal bronchioles
O respiratory bronchioles
O alveoli

The thoracic cage, or ribs, and the diaphragm bound the thoracic
cavity. There are two lungs that occupy a significant portion of
this cavity.
The diaphragm is a broad, dome-shaped muscle that separates the
thoracic and abdominal cavities and generates most of the work
of breathing. The inter-costal muscles, located between the
ribs, also aid in respiration. The internal intercostal muscles
lie close to the lungs and are covered by the external
intercostal muscles.
The lungs are cone-shaped organs that are soft, spongy and
normally pink. The lungs cannot expand or contract on their own,
but their softness allows them to change shape in response to
breathing. The lungs rely on expansion and contraction of the
thoracic cavity to actually generate inhalation and exhalation.
This process requires contraction of the diaphragm.
To facilitate the movements associated with respiration, each
lung is enclosed by the pleura, a membrane consisting of two
layers, the parietal pleura and the visceral pleura.
The parietal pleura comprise the outer layer and are attached to
the chest wall. The visceral pleura are directly attached to the
outer surface of each lung. The two pleural layers are separated
by a normally tiny space called the pleural cavity. A thin film
of serous or watery fluid called pleural fluid lines and
lubricates the pleural cavity. This fluid prevents friction and
holds the pleural surfaces together during inhalation and