The main function of the respiratory system is to provide oxygen, the most important energy source for the body's cells. Inspired air (the air you breath in) contains the oxygen, and travels down the respiratory tree to the alveoli. The oxygen moves out of the alveoli and is sent into circulation throughout the body as part of the red blood cells. The oxygen in the inspired air is exchanged within the alveoli for the waste product of human metabolism, carbon dioxide. The air you breathe out contains the gas called carbon dioxide. This gas leaves the alveoli during expiration. To restate this exchange of gases simply, you breathe in oxygen, you breathe out carbon dioxide
Respiratory system defenses
The normal, healthy human lung is sterile. There are no normally resident bacteria or viruses (unlike the upper respiratory system and parts of the gastrointestinal system, where bacteria dwell even in a healthy state). There are multiple safeguards along the path of the respiratory system. These are designed to keep invading organisms from leading to infection.
The first line of defense includes the hair in the nostrils, which serves as a filter for larger particles. The epiglottis is a trap door of sorts, designed to prevent food and other swallowed substances from entering the larynx and then trachea. Sneezing and coughing, both provoked by the presence of irritants within the respiratory system, help to clear such irritants from the respiratory tract.
Mucous, produced through the respiratory system, also serves to trap dust and infectious organisms. Tiny hair like projections (cilia) from cells lining the respiratory tract beat constantly. They move debris trapped by mucus upwards and out of the respiratory tract. This mechanism of protection is referred to as the mucociliary escalator.
Cells lining the respiratory tract produce several types of immune substances which protect against various organisms. Other cells (called macrophages) along the respiratory tract actually ingest and kill invading organisms.
The organisms that cause pneumonia, then, are usually carefully kept from entering the lungs by virtue of these host defenses. However, when an individual encounters a large number of organisms at once, the usual defenses may be overwhelmed, and infection may occur. This can happen either by inhaling contaminated air droplets, or by aspiration of organisms inhabiting the upper airways.
Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt MD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,