Feeling stuffed up? Achy around the eyes? Talking funny? Getting up close and personal with the mechanics of your respiratory system can enlighten – and offer fight-back tactics.
Our respiratory system (nose, sinuses and lungs) is lined with a membrane technically described as mucociliary columnar epithelium. The mucociliary part refers to the fact that there are abundant mucus glands, and the top of the cells have little hairs called cilia.
When all is normal, a great system is in operation: the mucus is thin and it sits on top of the ends of the cilia, which beat in a way to move this mucociliary escalator out of the lungs or sinus cavities. The system provides a barrier for microbes, pollutants and allergens from actually getting further into the cells, and also a mechanism for removing these unwanted items from the body.
Unfortunately, both allergic problems and infections can spoil this otherwise wonderful mechanism. They succeed because the inflammation from allergy/infection increases the viscosity of mucus, which is bad for two reasons: 1. The cilia can’t move the paste-like mucus, and 2. The white blood cells that want to attack the microbes find it slow-going trying to “swim” through thick mucus. Then there’s the dastardly aspect of infection: Many microbes have learned the capacity to manufacture mucus-thickening proteins as a way of defending themselves from your body’s immune attack.
So what can you do to bolster your defense against these attackers? The bottom line is to try and keep your mucus thin. Avoid milk and push clear fluids. Water is best. And as Grandma used to advise, a hot, steamy shower can loosen thick mucus. Over-the-counter medicines that work are guaifenesin (found in Mucinex and Robitussin), and N-A-C (N-acetyl cysteine).