The respiratory system

3.3 The respiratory system

The role of the respiratory system

The respiratory system is specialised to enable an adequate supply of oxygen to the tissues. As was described in Chapter 1.2b, oxygen is one of the essential ingredients for the process of cellular respiration. It is also the role of the respiratory system to allow carbon dioxide, a waste product of respiration, to be removed from the body.

In common usage, the term ‘respiration’ refers simply to the act of breathing. However, in physiology there are three aspects to respiration that can be clearly defined. These are external respiration, internal respiration and cellular respiration.

The respiratory system is primarily concerned with external respiration, which is the process of breathing leading to the exchange of gases between the blood and the lungs.

Internal respiration is the exchange of gases between the blood and the cells of all the body tissues, and is one of the functions performed by the circulatory system.

Cellular respiration is the process (described in Chapter 1.2b) by which oxygen and nutrients are converted to cellular energy (adenosine triphosphate (ATP)) and carbon dioxide within the cell itself. It is important to be clear about the distinction between these three processes, as these terms help define the precise roles of the respiratory system.

The respiratory system is conventionally divided into two sections, the upper and lower respiratory tract. A simple representation of the organs of the respiratory tract is given in Figure 3.3a-I. The division between the upper and lower parts occurs at the point at which the trachea splits into the two tubes called ‘bronchi’.

The diagram illustrates that this division occurs at a deep level in the chest, just above the position of the heart. The diagram also illustrates the close physical relationship between the heart and the lungs. In fact, if the heart is removed through dissection, an imprint of its shape is seen in the tissue of the lungs.

The upper respiratory tract

The upper respiratory tract leads from the entrance of the respiratory system at the nose to the end of the trachea, the tube which directs the inhaled air into the chest cavity (thorax) towards the lungs.

The function of the upper respiratory tract is to provide a plentiful supply of warm, clean and moist air to the lungs. To help it perform this function it consists of wide air spaces and is lined by a specialised form of epithelium. The respiratory epithelium consists largely of ciliated columnar cells but it also has many mucus-secreting (goblet) cells.

The water-containing mucus moistens the air that rushes through the respiratory tract, and picks up dirt particles and other foreign bodies present in the air. Cilia are structures akin to microscopic hairs on the surface of cells. They are powered by the energetically charged molecule ATP to move in coordinated waves. In the respiratory tract the cilia beat in an upward direction. Their function is to cause an upward movement of the mucus, allowing the foreign material to be moved away from the delicate lung tissue and up to the back of the throat, from where it can be swallowed or expectorated.

The connective-tissue layer below the respiratory epithelium has a number of lymphocytes scattered throughout its length. These respond to foreign antigens by producing antibodies and attracting other immune cells. This is an important aspect of the protection of the respiratory tract from infection.

The important parts of the upper respiratory tract are the nose, the pharynx, the larynx and the trachea.

The nose

In the breathing of a healthy person at rest, all air is drawn in through the nostrils into the nasal cavity. This space has a deeply ridged surface which has a rich blood supply. This means that the current of air comes into contact with a large area of warm epithelium before its descent towards the lungs. In addition to the cilia on the epithelial cells, body hairs are present in the opening of the nose to filter out any large foreign particles.

Opening out into the nasal cavity are the sinuses. These are cavities deep within the facial bones that have narrow passageways leading into the nasal cavity. Their function is to give the voice a resonant quality, the loss of which is apparent in anyone who has suffered from a ‘head cold’, when the sinuses become filled with thick secretions. A tiny duct leading from each eye also opens into this space. This continually drains away tears from the eyes. The runny nose that accompanies a bout of crying is a result of the excess tears flooding into the nose through this duct.

The nose is the specialised sense organ for smell. To perform this function, delicate nerves originating from the base of the brain penetrate the bone above the nasal cavity to supply the nasal lining. These are sensitive to the chemicals in the incoming air, which become dissolved in the mucus. The sense of smell is also important to enrich the experience of taste. Occasionally, in a head injury, these nerves become permanently severed, even though there may be no other major brain damage. The person may recover fully but be left without a sense of smell and with a highly impaired sense of taste.

Other nerves in the nose are very sensitive to the irritation that can result from foreign particles and from inflammation of the lining of the nose. These nerves can trigger the protective reflex of the sneeze, which is a very effective mechanism for expelling unwanted material from the nasal cavity.

The larynx

The larynx, popularly known as the voice box, is the structure that separates the pharynx from the trachea. Although it is primarily associated with voice production, it also plays a very important protective role. Figure 3.3a-III is a diagrammatic representation of the nasal cavity, pharynx and larynx, which illustrates how these structures relate to each other.

The tube-like larynx has stiff cartilage in its walls which enables it to maintain its shape. The cartilage at the front of the larynx is what can be seen and felt as the ‘Adam’s apple’. Because the thyroid gland sits close to this structure, the medical term for this is the ‘thyroid cartilage’.

The vocal cords are two fine flaps of tissue that are suspended from the surrounding cartilage tube. Figure 3.3a-IV shows a view of the aperture of the larynx. The vocal cords are depicted on either side of the aperture, leaving a triangular space through which the air can pass. Tiny muscles in the larynx contract to change the shape of this triangle between the vocal cords so that the space can vary from being a wide gap to a tiny ‘chink’. The tone of the muscles also affects the tightness of the vocal cords. During quiet breathing the gap is wide to allow a free passage of air in and out of the lungs. During speech, the gap narrows and the cords tighten. The expired air causes vibration of the tightened cords, which produces the sound of the voice. The tighter the cords, the higher the pitch of the voice.

The protective reflex of the cough involves a temporary tightening of the vocal cords so that the gap closes altogether. This occurs during a forced expiration of air. The closed gap means that the pressure of air below the vocal cords is suddenly increased. At this point the muscles relax and the gap widens. This results in a sudden forceful rush of air accompanied by the familiar sound of the cough. Like the sneeze, the cough is stimulated by the irritation of nerves in the larynx and the tubes that branch from the trachea into the lungs. The cough also has the effect of expelling unwanted material from the trachea, larynx and pharynx out through the open mouth.

The other important protective structure in the larynx is a stiff flap of cartilage-containing tissue called the ‘epiglottis’, which sits above the larynx. During swallowing this flap descends to completely cover the gap between the vocal cords. This protects against the inhalation of food during swallowing.

The lower respiratory tract

The lower respiratory tract begins where the trachea divides into the two narrower tubes called the bronchi. The bronchi further subdivide, like the branches of a tree, to penetrate the tissue of the two lungs.

The alveoli

At the end of each of the tiniest branches of the tree-like air passages that penetrate the lung are masses of tiny air sacs only a few cells in diameter. These are known as ‘alveoli’ (singular ‘alveolus’). The lungs are composed of millions of these tiny air spaces packed together, and all connecting with the outside world through the bronchioles and bronchi. The alveoli are lined with only a single layer of flat squamous epithelium, and are supplied by a dense network of fine blood capillaries.

Figure 3.3a-V illustrates how the alveoli branch from the bronchioles, and how a network of capillaries supplies each one.

Exchange of gases in the alveoli

The blood that enters the capillaries surrounding the alveoli has originated from the pulmonary arteries. These large vessels originate from the right ventricle of the heart and carry deoxygenated blood pumped by the right side of the heart. The blood is deoxygenated because the cells of the body tissues have used up all the oxygen in the process of cellular respiration. As well as being deoxygenated, this blood is also carrying a high concentration of carbon dioxide, the by-product of cellular respiration. In contrast, the air inspired into the alveoli is rich in oxygen from the outside air, and carries very little carbon dioxide. Therefore, there is a tendency for the oxygen in the alveoli to move into the deoxygenated blood in the capillaries. This movement occurs readily, as oxygen can diffuse with no restriction through the cell membranes of the alveolar and capillary walls. At the same time, there is a movement of carbon dioxide out of the capillary blood and into the alveolar air. This exchange of the two gases of respiration occurs very rapidly (see Q 3.3a-2)image.

The capillaries that leave the alveoli converge to form the pulmonary veins, which return all this blood to the left side of the heart. This blood is now rich in oxygen, and has been cleared of carbon dioxide. The pulmonary veins are the only veins in the body that carry oxygenated blood. All the other veins carry blood away from the body tissues, and this blood is of course deoxygenated.

The air left in the alveolus now contains more carbon dioxide than oxygen, and is expelled to the outside world by the process of expiration, so that the whole process can begin afresh with the next in-breath.

This process of exchange of gases is assisted by the fact that there are millions of alveoli, each with its own rich blood supply. In some conditions, such as emphysema, the delicate structure of the alveoli is damaged and their number is reduced (see Chapter 3.3e). This severely impairs the process of exchange of gases, so that the blood does not get replenished with an adequate amount of oxygen, and carbon dioxide fails to be fully cleared.

External respiration

External respiration is the process whereby air is drawn into the lung tissue through inspiration and is then expelled through expiration. This process permits the exchange of gases to occur.

Inspiration involves the inflation of the lungs. Like an expanded bellows, the inflated lung naturally draws air into itself. The lungs are inflated by a lifting and expansion of the rib-cage walls and a descent of the diaphragm. This action occurs as a result of contraction of the diaphragm and of the muscles that link the ribs together.

Expiration involves the deflation of the lungs. This naturally forces air back out of the lungs. In relaxed breathing, expiration requires no muscular effort. A simple relaxation of the rib cage and diaphragm has the effect of reducing the volume of the thorax and thus deflating the lungs.

In normal, quiet breathing the cycle of inspiration and expiration occurs at about 15 times per minute (4 seconds/cycle). There is an automatic reflex that originates from a control centre in the base of the brain that sets this regular rhythm. Nerves travel down from this control centre to stimulate the synchronised and rhythmic muscular contraction of the rib cage and diaphragm (see Q3.3a-3)image.

All variations in the resting respiratory rate are brought about by changes that take place in the breathing control centre in the brain. The breathing control centre is essential for maintaining homeostasis of the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the arterial blood. The oxygen level must of course be maintained at a high concentration, whereas the level of carbon dioxide must not be allowed to rise too high. To perform this role, the breathing control centre contains cells that are very sensitive to the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. A miniscule rise in the level of carbon dioxide leads to an increase in the breathing rate so that excess carbon dioxide can be ‘blown off’. If the level of carbon dioxide drops, so does the rate of breathing, and the levels in the blood can build up again.

The control centre in the brain is also sensitive to drops in the concentration of oxygen in the blood. However, the responsiveness of the control centre to carbon dioxide also indirectly controls the homeostasis of oxygen in the blood, as increased external respiration will increase oxygen levels, and reduced external respiration will reduce oxygen levels.

Any voluntary wish to modulate the breathing, such as for speech, singing or laughing, generates nerve impulses from other parts of the brain (the cerebral hemispheres) to the control centre of breathing, which then alters the breathing rate accordingly. The sneeze and cough reflexes involve a direct link between the irritated nerve endings and the control centre.

The way in which the brain is responsible for the voluntary and involuntary control of body functions is described in more detail in Chapter 4.1 on the nervous system (see Q3.3a-4)image.

image Information Box 3.3a-I The lungs: comments from a Chinese medicine perspective

The functions of the Lungs are to:

Government of Qi and respiration refers to two aspects, as described below.


In summary, the Lungs in Chinese medicine have a much broader role than their purely physical counterpart in conventional medicine. It seems that the role of the Lungs in Chinese medicine also embraces aspects that would be attributed in conventional medicine to the cardiovascular, urinary, gastrointestinal and immune systems as well as the skin.

The functions of the Lung according to a conventional and Chinese perspective can be summarised in the form of a correspondence table (for an introduction to the Organ correspondence tables, see Appendix I). This table illustrates the idea that the functions of the air-filled sacs, which conventional medicine calls the lungs, may be the domain not only of the Lung Organ in Chinese Medicine, but also of the Kidney and Liver Organs. It will follow from this that diseases of the lungs may manifest in Chinese medicine syndromes involving the Lung, Liver and Kidney Organs.

Correspondence table for the functions of the Lung as described by conventional and Chinese medicine

Functions of the lung Functions of the Lung Organ

‘The Lungs are like a minister from whom policies are issued’

The investigation of the respiratory system

The most common investigations of the respiratory system include:

Biopsy of the lung tissue

Biopsy involves the removal of a piece of lung tissue for examination under the microscope. The biopsy can be taken from the bronchi or bronchioles through the bronchoscope. Biopsy of the pleura can be taken through a small incision in the skin overlying a gap between the ribs. Sometimes a thoracic surgeon is required to open up the chest to remove tissue from deep in the chest.

Biopsy is most commonly used to confirm the diagnosis of cancer, but also can be used when infection is suspected, but cannot be detected by any other means.

Fluid can also be drawn from between the pleura by means of a syringe needle inserted between the ribs into the space. This is used only in those conditions that have caused fluid to accumulate in this space, known as pleural effusion. Such conditions include cancer of the bronchus, pneumonia and pulmonary oedema.

Acute infections of the upper respiratory tract

With the exception of some forms of tonsillitis and pharyngitis and the childhood infection acute epiglottitis, all the common infections of the upper respiratory tract are initially caused by viruses. There is a wide range of viruses that has been identified to affect the respiratory epithelial cells. Viruses tend to enter the upper respiratory tract through inhalation of infected droplets of moisture. The inhaled virus is able to penetrate and damage the cells, and this leads to inflammation (redness and swelling) and the production of sometimes profuse watery secretions. Fever is a common symptom of these infections, although frequently it is mild in nature. Breathlessness (which is significant if respiration rises to over 30 breaths/minute in adults) is not a feature of upper respiratory conditions. Breathlessness suggests a more serious lower respiratory condition or obstruction to the upper airways, and if severe merits same-day referral for a medical opinion.

The different syndromes that result from upper respiratory infection seem to be dependent on the characteristics of the virus. Some primarily affect the throat and the nasal lining, leading to the symptoms of the common cold, whereas others tend to affect lower structures, causing tonsillitis or laryngitis for example. The evidence for this is that a virus that is ‘going around’ will cause the same sorts of symptoms in most people who contract the infection.

Usually, viral infections of the upper respiratory tract are short lived. In some people the infections can progress to affect further regions of the respiratory system, including the lower respiratory tract. In these cases, it is often believed that a further bacterial infection has arisen in the region of the already damaged respiratory epithelium. Commonly it is one of the ‘healthy’ bacteria, which usually reside harmlessly in the lining of the upper respiratory tract, that causes these complications. Therefore, these sorts of deeper bacterial infections are not usually contagious. This complication of bacterial infection is recognised to be more likely in people who are susceptible due to some form of chronic ill-health. As long as upper respiratory conditions last for less than 5 days there is usually no need for medical referral, except in the case of infants or frail individuals.

The treatment for all minor viral upper respiratory conditions needs be supportive only, as the antiviral drugs currently available are expensive, carry risks and only shorten rather than eliminate the symptoms of illness in healthy individuals. For this reason, the use of these drugs in the NHS is restricted according to the UK National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance (2009), being given only in cases of influenza in vulnerable individuals. Common treatment approaches recommended by doctors include aspirin and paracetamol to reduce pain and fever, plenty of fluids to counteract fluid loss through fever, keeping warm and letting the body rest.

There is no doubt that smokers are more prone to severe forms of upper respiratory tract infections. It is also recognised that atmospheric pollution results in increased rates of severe respiratory infections. Both these factors reduce the health of the respiratory epithelium so that it is less well equipped to deal with minor infections. Smoking, in particular, is known to damage the action of the cilia in the respiratory epithelium and also to cause a change in the production of the mucus so that it becomes much thicker and thus resistant to clearance from the air passages.

The accumulation of thick and sticky mucus that results when a smoker develops a viral respiratory infection is much more likely to become further infected by bacteria and to result in a persistent phlegmy infection.

The cough and profuse phlegm familiar to people who have recently stopped smoking is a healthy sign. It is a result of the recovery of the cilia, which then are able to clear accumulated toxins and mucus from the lower parts of the respiratory tract.

The common cold

The common cold virus affects the nose and pharynx (throat), leading to sore throat, stuffy and runny nose, and watery eyes. The secretions are usually clear. Fever is slight or absent. Simple treatments for the common cold include vitamin C and zinc preparations and steam inhalations to loosen secretions. Eucalyptus and menthol oils can be a helpful addition to a steam inhalation, and these aromatic compounds are also commonly found in proprietary cough sweets and medicines. Aspirin or paracetamol may be taken to relieve the discomfort of sore throat and to reduce fever.

Decongestant preparations that act by constriction of the blood vessels of the nose are not generally considered to be of great benefit. However, they are freely available as proprietary medications in the form of tablets or nasal sprays containing drugs similar in action to the chemical ephedrine. Decongestants reduce the swelling of the nasal lining and reduce the secretions. However, these are conventionally recognised to be suppressive, and it is recognised that the symptoms may recur in a more pronounced form when the drug wears off. Examples of decongestant medication include Vicks Sinex nasal spray and Sudafed nasal spray.

Some cold preparations available from the chemist contain mild sedatives, which help by allowing the person to rest.

A common cold is not seen to be serious in conventional medicine except in people who have a risk of further infection due to ongoing chronic disease or immunodeficiency.


Sinusitis is the result of infection of the respiratory epithelium that lines the sinus cavities situated in the facial bones. Although it is commonly triggered by a virus infection, sinusitis can readily become more persistent due to subsequent bacterial infection. This is because the narrow opening of the inflamed sinuses into the nasal cavity easily becomes blocked, and the stagnation of the secretions within predispose to further infection, often by the ‘healthy’ bacteria that usually reside harmlessly in the nose.

Prolonged sinusitis is more likely to occur in certain susceptible people. Susceptibility can be the result of a congenital structural abnormality sinuses (and so could run in families), a tendency to produce excessive phlegmy secretions, and of smoking.

The symptoms of sinusitis include painful and tender sinuses, with foci of pain over the inner aspect of the eyebrows and in the centre of the cheekbones. In a persistent infection the patient may feel very unwell and feverish, and may have a headache over the forehead. Thick green secretions, indicating bacterial infection, may be produced.

Supportive measures include inhalation of aromatic oils, such as Olbas oil, in steam. Doctors will frequently prescribe antibiotics (most commonly amoxicillin) in a severe case of sinusitis, although increasingly other antibiotics such as doxycycline or erythromycin may have to be chosen because of increasing bacterial resistance to amoxicillin.

In susceptible people, sinusitis, even when treated with antibiotics, can become recurrent. Occasionally it can become chronic, with symptoms that never totally go away. In such cases the patient may be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist for consideration of endoscopic sinus surgery, which is a means of widening and draining the sinus passages.

image Information Box 3.3c-I The common cold: comments from a Chinese medicine perspective

In Chinese medicine, the symptoms of the common cold are described as an invasion of Wind Heat or Wind Cold (and occasionally Wind Damp Heat or Wind Dry Heat) on the Exterior. They are believed to occur because of the relative weakness of Wei Qi compared to the strength of the Pathogenic Factor. As such, if treated in its early stages by releasing the Exterior and Clearing Wind, the development of a common cold is believed to be preventable.

According to the Six Stages theory, a common cold due to Wind Cold is at the most superficial Greater Yang (Tai Yang) level. According to the Four Levels theory, a common cold due to Wind Heat is at the most superficial Defensive (Wei) Qi Level.

In contrast to conventional medicine, an Invasion of Wind Heat or Wind Cold is taken very seriously, as there is a risk it may descend to deeper energetic levels and change into Heat unless appropriate care and treatment is given.

From the integrated perspective of infectious disease introduced in Chapter 2.4d, the infectious viruses might be seen as the source of a Pathogenic Factor of external origin, whereas many bacterial complications of these infections would be seen as the result of additional Pathogenic Factors of internal origin. This is comparable to the concept in Chinese medicine that superficial invasions of Wind Heat or Wind Cold can progress to deeper levels in people with depleted Qi, and so fits in with the idea that in these cases the Pathogenic Factor is of internal origin.

For example, the development of a phlegmy bacterial bronchial infection following a minor viral illness, as is common in heavy smokers, could be interpreted in Chinese medicine as the accumulation of Heat and Phlegm at a deeper level than the Exterior. These pathogenic factors are consequences of long-term damage from smoking, and so would be recognised as Internal in origin.

Aspirin may be an appropriate energetic remedy for an invasion of Wind Cold or Wind Heat, in that it is believed to release the exterior and promote sweating. Aspirin is also anti-inflammatory and will temporarily relieve discomfort due to fever, sore throat and aching joints. This suggests a clearing of Heat from the Exterior level and a moving of stagnant Qi. However, the tablet preparation of aspirin is also Heating at a deep level, as evidenced by its causing inflammation of the stomach and increasing the tendency to bleed. This may not be desirable in a patient with Wind Heat invasion. Although aspirin clears Heat at a superficial level, the appearance of Heat at a deeper level suggests this could be, in part, the result of suppression.

Paracetamol also temporarily reduces fever, inflammation and pain. Like aspirin, this represents the clearing of Heat from the Exterior level and moving of stagnant Qi. Although it does not have the Heating properties of aspirin, in overdose it is known to be toxic, to the liver in particular. The temporary effects suggest the mechanism is also suppressive.

Decongestant drugs reduce secretions from the nose and stuffiness. This would correspond to the clearing of Wind Cold. Interestingly, these drugs have a very close relation in Chinese medicine known as ma huang (ephedra), which as a pungent warm herb is recognised to Clear Wind Cold. However, conventionally, decongestants are recognised to be suppressive in action. This suggests that if used without simultaneous attention to the root deficiency, the action of ma huang can also be suppressive.

Tonsillitis and pharyngitis

It is very common for a virus infection to affect the back of the throat and/or the tonsils without also affecting the nasal lining. The inflammation that results from this sort of infection is termed ‘pharyngitis’ (sore throat) or ‘tonsillitis’, depending on the site of the worst symptoms.

Like the common cold, this sort of viral infection, although uncomfortable, should be mild and short lived. In more severe cases the tonsils can become very inflamed and enlarged, and this can be accompanied by high fever, headache, joint pains and malaise.

Infection with the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes used to be a very common cause of tonsillitis and pharyngitis, although it is now less common. The bacterial tonsillitis is characteristically more severe than that resulting from a viral infection, and yellow areas of pus can often be seen on the tonsil. However, there is no absolute distinction, as some viral tonsillitis can be very severe, and may also generate pus on the tonsil. Bacterial tonsillitis and pharyngitis can be diagnosed by means of a throat swab, although this takes a few days to process.

The treatment for bacterial tonsillitis is penicillin(phenoxymethyl) rather than amoxicillin. Often, a doctor might choose to prescribe penicillin in a severe case of tonsillitis, even when it is uncertain that the cause is bacterial. The delays involved in processing a throat swab and the discomfort for the patient deter many doctors from performing this test. This is an example of ‘treating blind’ (see Chapter 2.4d). In many cases it may never be known whether the antibiotic helped because the tonsillitis naturally gets better in most people by 3–7 days of onset.

There are two reasons to prescribe antibiotics in tonsillitis. The first is that the symptoms of bacterial infection may be reduced in severity by penicillin. The second, more important, reason is that in some people the Streptococcus infection can have more serious complications. These are scarlet fever, rheumatic fever and glomerulonephritis (also known as acute nephritis). However, for reasons that are unclear, these complications are becoming increasingly uncommon, even when the use of antibiotics is accounted for. For this reason current medical guidelines (NICE 2008) recommend that antibiotics are not prescribed in uncomplicated cases of pharyngitis and tonsillitis.

In rare cases, one tonsil can become very inflamed and full of pus. This condition, known as ‘quinsy’ (peritonsillar abscess), is very debilitating, and is associated with fever. The treatment is with antibiotics and may require urgent surgical drainage of the pus from the tonsil. In some cases the enlarged tonsil may compromise breathing, in which case it becomes a surgical emergency.

In some people, and children in particular, tonsillitis can become recurrent. It used to be common practice to remove the tonsils surgically in such cases. However, surgery is now performed only relatively rarely, as it is recognised to be a risky and traumatic experience for a child, and does not necessarily reduce recurrent attacks of pharyngitis. Tonsillectomy would only currently be considered if attacks of tonsillitis exceeded five a year for at least 2 years.

image Information Box 3.3c-III Tonsillitis: comments from a Chinese medicine perspective

In Chinese medicine, the signs and symptoms of tonsillitis and pharyngitis are usually attributed to Wind Heat invasion. In children in particular, Stomach Heat may be an additional internal source of the Pathogenic Factor. The symptoms of severe tonsillitis correspond to the Chinese medicine condition of Fire Poison, especially with the accumulation of pus and high fever that can occur in such cases. There may be underlying Kidney or Spleen deficiency in cases of Fire poison.

Quinsy is a severe example of Fire Poison, and develops because of underlying deficiency. Antibiotics, although necessary in many cases because of the severity of the condition, are suppressive in action. Surgical drainage is energetically appropriate, as it is simply speeds up the body’s tendency to discharge pus, and probably acts by enabling clearance of the Fire Poison (extreme Damp Heat).

Interestingly, Fire Poison has been described in Chinese medicine as one of the causes of acute nephritis. This fits with the conventionally recognised association between streptococcal tonsillitis and acute nephritis.

Antibiotic treatment in tonsillitis may often have either no effect or a simple placebo effect if prescribed in viral infections. However, it may also damage Stomach and Spleen Qi because of its Cold and Damp nature, and so may be less than helpful in the patient with viral tonsillitis. It may be the appropriate energetic remedy in streptococcal infections if the Pathogen is of external origin, however. This is most likely if the case is one of many ‘going round’. Often, tonsillitis has an internal component, and is an external manifestation of internal Stomach Heat. If this is the case, antibiotics will be suppressive, and recurrence of the ‘infection’ is a possibility.

Recurrent tonsillitis always suggests an internal cause. In such cases, treatment with antibiotics and tonsillectomy are suppressive in nature.

Glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis)

Glandular fever is one of the more severe forms of viral tonsillitis, and is caused by a virus known as the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV). However, most cases of EBV infection are mild. The evidence for this comes from studies of healthy students, in which blood tests showed that up to 90% of the students had contracted the infection at some point in their lives. Most of these infections had occurred without the students knowing that they had contracted glandular fever.

However, severe cases can be prolonged and draining. The patient can suffer from severe tonsillitis, with fever and joint aches. The lymph nodes in the neck are enlarged. There may be abdominal pain as other lymph tissue in the body, including the spleen, can become enlarged, and the liver may become inflamed. Occasionally, a red, measles-like rash can develop, particularly in patients who have been mistakenly prescribed amoxicillin because a bacterial tonsillitis was suspected. In very rare cases the virus can affect the lining of the brain and cause meningitis.

EBV infection can be diagnosed by a blood test that detects antibodies to the virus in or after the second week of symptoms. Treatment is supportive only. In severe cases, when there is enlargement of the spleen, corticosteroid tablets may be prescribed.

Laryngitis, tracheitis and croup

Some of the other viral infections primarily affect the larynx and the trachea. The result is inflammation of these tissues, leading to one or more of hoarseness, cough and pain felt beneath the sternum. The pain is related to coughing and deep breathing.

Again, these infections may only be short lived except in those who are susceptible, particularly young children and smokers. In susceptible people there is a risk that tracheitis can descend to involve the bronchi and cause a much more severe and prolonged infection.

In children under the age of 3 years the swelling of the vocal cords can be so severe as to lead to difficulty in breathing. The affected child will be hoarse, have a rapid respiratory rate and may have a barking cough. If severe, a rasping noise, known as ‘stridor’, is heard as the child breathes in. In very severe cases the child needs to be nursed in a steam-filled tent in an intensive care unit to allow for safe recovery. The barking cough in such cases is called ‘croup’, and may persist in a child for weeks.

In some cases laryngitis may persist to give a syndrome of persistently hoarse voice and thick stringy mucus that is difficult to clear. This is known as ‘chronic laryngitis’. The patient is otherwise well. This is more common in people who smoke or in those who overuse their voices, such as singers.

The treatment of chronic laryngitis is to rest the voice and avoid smoking. Steam inhalations can soothe the vocal cords and loosen the mucus. However, if the hoarseness persists for more than 3 weeks it is considered good practice for the patient to be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist. The vocal cords can then be examined by laryngoscopy to exclude the unlikely possibility of a tumour of the vocal cords.

Oct 3, 2016 | Posted by in MANUAL THERAPIST | Comments Off on The respiratory system
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