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Airway Oxygen: How Oxygen Moves Through the Airways of Your Body

Airway Oxygen, respiratory system, COPD, breathe, air, lungsBreathing. It’s something that most of us take for granted. But understanding how oxygen-rich air enters your lungs where it’s exchanged for carbon dioxide is an important part of living with COPD. Let’s take a tour of the respiratory system so you can see how it works.

The Respiratory System

The respiratory system is composed of specialized cells, tissues and organs, each with the purpose of helping you breathe. Although breathing is usually automatic, the respiratory system works 24/7 to maintain oxygen and carbon dioxide levels so you can breathe easily and go about your daily life. When something disturbs this balance, the respiratory system, along with other bodily systems, work together to bring the body back to homeostasis (balance). If homeostasis can’t be restored using the body’s normal compensatory mechanisms, medical attention may be required.

The Upper Respiratory System

The upper respiratory system consists of the nose, nasal cavity, pharynx (throat) and larynx (voice box).

Breathing begins as you inhale air from the environment through the nostrils of your nose (or mouth), where it is filtered, warmed and humidified in the nasal cavity. The air then passes through the pharynx — a passageway for both air and food – and into the larynx, which also functions to prevent food from entering the lower respiratory system.[1]

The Lower Respiratory System

The major structures of the lower respiratory system include the trachea (windpipe), bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, and lungs.

After the air leaves the larynx, it passes through the trachea, which is composed of firm, C-shape cartilage rings that give the trachea its rigidity. This is important because it allows the trachea to remain continuously open. The trachea is approximately 4 inches long and 1 inch in diameter and is very flexible in nature. Similar to the nasal cavity, it helps filter, warm and humidify the air that passes through it.

As the air leaves the trachea, it flows into the bronchi. One bronchus leads to the right lung and the other to the left. Like the trachea, the bronchi are made up of firm, C-shaped cartilage that provide rigidity and support. The air continues through the bronchi – which further subdivides into smaller bronchioles – until it reaches the alveoli, commonly referred to as air sacs. It is in the alveoli that gas exchange takes place.1

The Alveoli

The alveoli are tiny microscopic structures that are bunched together in grape-like clusters to form alveolar sacs. On the surface of the alveoli are networks of tiny blood vessels called capillaries. It is through these tiny capillaries that oxygen from the air you inhale diffuses (passes through) into the blood stream. At the same time, carbon dioxide, the waste product of respiration, moves from the capillaries into the alveoli and out through the airways of the lungs where it is blown off with the next exhalation.1

Bringing it all Together

Airway Oxygen, respiratory system, COPD, breathe, air, lungsAfter absorbing oxygen, your blood leaves the lungs and travels through the pulmonary veins to the left side of the heart. The left side of your heart has an important purpose: to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body in order to provide oxygen to the cells of your tissues and organs. Concurrently, as your cells utilize oxygen, carbon dioxide is produced and absorbed into your blood stream. The oxygen deficient, carbon dioxide-rich blood is carried back to the right side of the heart through the superior vena cava and the inferior vena cava, two large veins located above and below the heart muscle. Finally, your blood returns to the lungs through the pulmonary artery, where carbon dioxide diffuses across the capillaries of the alveoli and is removed from the body when you exhale.[2]

For more information about airway oxygen and how the blood flows through the body, talk to your primary care provider.


[1] NHLBI. The Respiratory System. Last Updated 7/17/2012.
[2] Noah Lechtzin, MD, MHS. Exchanging Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide.Merck Manuals. Accessed 6/29/2017.

8 thoughts on “Airway Oxygen: How Oxygen Moves Through the Airways of Your Body”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Very informative article. Thank you Inogen!

  2. Phely Dane says:

    Excellent tips here! I’ll be saving a lot with all the tips you’ve provided. Thank you so much!

  3. Myra says:

    COPD includes a variety of causes of lack of oxygen.
    I had polio as a baby and developed a severe case of scoliosis (rotolateral scoliosis) which has decreased the volume or capacity of the usable lung space. As I get older my spine is curved more and more, leaving less space for air. Cold weather is not a friend of mine. The oxygen tubes from the generator don't like the cold air either.


  4. Al says:

    If your text descriptions of various body parts matched the diagram call outs, the article would be much more valuable. Just saying.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Al, Thank you for your feedback. We periodically go through our blog posts and web pages and update them with images and new links. We will take your comments into consideration during our next revision.

  5. JOANN BOYD says:

    I've been diagnosed with bronchiectasis. How does this fit into COPD.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Joann, Bronchiectasis is a chronic lung condition where the walls of the bronchi are thickened due to inflammation and infection in the bronchi. Bronchiectasis patients can experience periods where lung health and symptoms worsen. These periods are called exacerbations, and they can be similar to COPD exacerbations. Bronchiectasis can develop due to COPD. For more information on what a COPD exacerbation is and how to prevent one, please visit: https://www.inogen.com/blog/what-is-a-copd-exacerbation/ and https://www.inogen.com/blog/5-ways-to-prevent-copd-exacerbation/

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