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Everyday Ways You're Damaging Your Lungs, According to Doctors

Discover how washing your hands can keep your insides clean, too.

The coronavirus hits you where you live and breathe—literally, attacking your lungs. That's why keeping your lungs healthy during this crisis is so important. You've probably heard of a variety of lung diseases—including asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), bronchitis, and the most fatal, lung cancer—that can occur when there is a problem in the lungs. (It may be on your mind because Rush Limbaugh and Dustin Diamond recently died of the disease.) According to the CDC, every year more people die of lung cancer in the United States than any other cancer. Most of these deaths are preventable, as smoking is the leading cause. But take a deep breath and read on to discover some far more surprising ways to keep your lungs healthy, from the doctors who know—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Had COVID and Didn't Know It.


First, Let's Get Through the Obvious Ones: Don't Smoke, and Stop if You Do

Middle age hoary senior man

The number one thing you can do to keep your lungs healthy is putting down the pack. According to the CDC, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Here, it is linked to the majority of lung cancer deaths—80% to 90% to be exact. Additionally, it can cause a bevy of health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It can also increase you risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis.

According to Matthew Mintz, MD, even if you aren't a chain smoker you should consider kicking the habit for good. "While there is certainly a dose relationship between smoking and lung disease, no amount of cigarettes are healthy," he tells Eat This, Not That! Health. In other words, "I only smoke when I drink" doesn't cut it.


Don't Vape

Disposable vape pen with refill pod on hand

You've read the headlines by now. Be scared by them. "In addition to some of the dangerous things we are hearing recently about vaping, there have been reports for some time about consequences of vaping," says Dr. Mintz. He explains that while vaping an e-cigarette might be less risky than smoking a regular cigarette, "vaping any form of nicotine is not good for the body in general, and can harm the lungs."


Avoid Secondhand Smoke

Young romantic couple drinking coffee, eating traditional French croissants and smoking in a cozy outdoor cafe in Paris, France

While smoking is certainly bad, the dangers of secondhand smoke is not-so-innocent either. According to the CDC, 7,300 people die from lung cancer every year due to secondhand smoke. "If you live with a smoker or work around smokers, have them quit or not smoke around you," urges Dr. Mintz.

RELATED: The #1 Cause of Obesity, According to Science


Stay On Top of Any Lung Conditions—Including a Cold!

woman wearing yellow sweater at kitchen feeling unwell and coughing as symptom for cold or bronchitis

If you have a respiratory disease such as asthma or emphysema (COPD)— including a cold—Purvi Parikh, MD, allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, encourages you to see a doctor and make sure it is under control. "It is important to take appropriate medications if you suffer from any chronic lung diseases such as cold or asthma to prevent them from progressing," Dr. Parikh states. If you have COPD, make sure that you are on the most appropriate inhaler, adds Dr. Mintz. "If you have had an exacerbation of your COPD (meaning, a worsening of symptoms requiring increase in medications or hospitalizations), there is now evidence that some inhalers may not only prevent your risk of another exacerbation, but may even reduce your risk of death," he points out.

It's also crucial to ensure you are using the proper doses of any medications your doctor prescribes. "For patients with asthma, if you are using albuterol more than twice a week, or need to refill your inhaler more than once a year, you are using too much and your asthma is not under good control," Dr. Mintz warns. "See a doctor and make sure you are on a daily inhaler to prevent your asthma from getting worse."

When should you see a doctor? "If you are having any symptoms of coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, easily fatigued, trouble catching your breath are all signs and symptoms you need to see a specialist," advises Dr. Parikh. "Do not take your breathing lightly! We have ten deaths per day in the United States due to undiagnosed asthma."

Bottom line: stay on top of any lung conditions!


Get Screened for Lung Cancer

According to the CDC, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and the second most diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the United States. Just like mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colon cancer, Dr. Mintz points out that there are now special CT scans for patients at risk for lung cancer that can pick it up early and potentially save your life. While not everyone needs this test, certain people should definitely get one. This includes adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history (1 pack a day for 30 years, 2 packs a day for 15 years) and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.


You May Not Be Washing Your Hands Enough

The hands of a man who washes his hands with soap dispenser

This is the easiest way to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. "Most respiratory infections are transmitted from inhaling respiratory droplets of someone who is sick," Dr. Mintz reminds us. Like mom used to tell you, the best way to prevent the spread of viruses is washing your hands.


Get Your Shots!

Doctor in personal protective suit or PPE inject vaccine shot to stimulating immunity of woman patient at risk of coronavirus infection.

"Everyone should get a flu shot," states Dr. Mintz. Despite the misconception, the flu shot doesn't cause the flu. "Even if you never get sick, you should still get a flu shot because it will not only protect you, but will protect your loved ones," he points out. In addition, adults 65 and up should have a pneumonia shot, which is actually two pneumonia shots given a year apart. Same goes for the coronavirus vaccine—get yours as soon as possible.

RELATED: 9 Everyday Habits That Might Lead to Dementia, Say Experts


Check Your Air Quality

Architect Checking Insulation During House Construction

According to the CDC, Radon, a naturally occurring gas that comes from rocks and dirt and can get trapped in houses and buildings, is a risk factor for lung cancer. The scary thing is, it cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that exposure to radon causes about 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year —meaning it the second leading cause of lung cancer. An estimated out of every 15 homes in the United States is thought to have high radon levels, which is why during the home-buying process it is recommended to do a radon test. If you are worried about radon in your home, you can have a test conducted by a professional or even buy an at-home test at the hardware store. We suggest splurging on Airthings, a smart-home device that continually monitors the air quality in your home and transmits the data to your mobile device.


Stay Clear of Other Toxins and Chemicals

Blurred silhouettes of cars surrounded by steam from the exhaust pipes. Traffic jam

According to the CDC, being exposed to asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and some forms of silica and chromium can increase the risk of getting lung cancer — in some cases, even higher than smoking!

RELATED: Signs You're Getting One of the "Most Deadly" Cancers.


Exercise More Regularly

Woman doing butt squats

Exercise strengthens your muscles as well as your lungs. When you are physically active, your heart and lungs work harder to supply the additional oxygen your muscles demand. Just like regular exercise makes your muscles stronger, it also makes your lungs and heart stronger. As your physical fitness improves, your body becomes more efficient at getting oxygen into the bloodstream and transporting it to the working muscles. That's one of the reasons that you are less likely to become short of breath during exercise over time. The recommended amount: at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week. And to get through life at your healthiest, don't miss: This Supplement Can Raise Your Cancer Risk, Experts Say.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah