illustration of the lungs within a man's chest

How to know your lungs are healthy

April 13, 2023

Maybe you smoked that one time in college or are simply curious about the health of the organs that allow you to breathe. Is there a way to test the health of your lungs at home? We asked Wilson Quezada, MD, a specialist in lungs and issues related to breathing. Here’s what he said:

What do the lungs do?

The lungs—people normally have two—are the central organs in the respiratory system. Among multiple functions, one essential job is to carry out “gas exchange.”

During gas exchange, the lung moves oxygen into the bloodstream so it can be transferred to all the body’s tissues and organs, which use it as a fuel. The lungs also get rid of carbon dioxide, a gas created by our cells as they perform their normal functions. 

What do lungs do to keep you healthy?

In addition to gas exchange, your lungs work with your heart to ensure proper blood flow to the rest of the body. They work with the kidneys to maintain your body’s delicate pH balance, which ensures cells work optimally. And the lungs work with your immune system, acting as a barrier and defense against harmful materials and microbes (including viruses) you may inhale.

How do you know your lungs are healthy?

If your breathing is natural, comes easily and not forced, is steady and makes you feel good, or is so regular you do not notice it at all, your lungs are most likely healthy.

Leading a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a normal weight with good diet and frequent exercise, and avoiding potentially harmful exposures such as tobacco use, vaping, and other inhaled substances, is essential for good respiratory health.

In some instances, however, lung disease can show up before causing symptoms. Annual checkups can detect early lung disease that is not immediately causing symptoms.  

What are signs your lungs may not be healthy (and when should you tell your doctor)? 

The most common symptoms of lung disease are shortness of breath and cough, though many other conditions share these symptoms. It is important to let your doctor know if you’re experiencing them so you can be evaluated for lung disease if necessary.

Does the average person need to do breathing exercises for their lungs?

A lot of patients ask me this question. The short answer is: No.

If you do not have a history of lung disease, regular exercise (especially cardiovascular exercise) and avoiding inhalants like tobacco are all you need to maintain healthy lungs. There are specialized exercise programs for patients with respiratory disease, but only in specific situations.

Do allergies harm the lungs?

Allergies can affect people who have airway diseases of the lungs, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The inflammation triggered by allergens can trigger tightening of the airways (a process called bronchospasm). If you suffer from these conditions, avoiding known allergens and using medications that lessen the inflammation triggered by allergens are essential.

What does vaping do to your lungs?   

Just like smoking tobacco, vaping has the potential to reduce your normal lung function and lead to shortness of breath, chronic cough, and obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Vaping has multiple harmful effects. The smoke produced from the combustion carries substances and chemicals that can cause abnormal inflammation in the airways. Small particles can deposit in the lungs and potentially cause permanent damage that may become problematic later in life.  

What do your patients wish they could do if their lungs were healthy? 

Most patients become limited by shortness of breath, especially with activity. Shortness of breath can make even minimal activity very difficult.

Most patients with lung disease simply wish they did not have to struggle to breathe.


Wilson Quezada, MD, is a pulmonologist at ColumbiaDoctors and assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also is associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Training Program in the Department of Medicine. He specializes in asthma, COPD, interstitial lung disease, and smoking cessation.  

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