By Summer Pellechio

You’ve added heat to an object. It is burning and there is smoke. Whether this object is a cigarette, joint, or a piece of wood; the material’s chemicals have rearranged and created smoke filled with toxins, irritants, and carcinogens.

Things that you breathe in travel to the lungs through a pipe, the trachea. Cells that line the trachea are topped with sea anemones, cilia, and some of the cells make mucus. The mucus fly-traps unwelcome small particles, including smoke, and the sea anemones sweep the dirty mucus up and out. Any exposure to smoke will temporarily slow or stop the sweeping activity, so that mucus stagnates and particles sit or sneak by.

via Gfycat

Sea anemones

While exposure to smoke continues, irritating particles flood the respiratory tract. The mucus escalator (our natural trap and sweep up process) is nearly out of service and extra work is pushed onto alveolar phagocytes, hungry cells that clean the small air sacs in our lungs.

Carbon molecules in lung tissue

Unhealthy lung tissue displaying alveolar phagocytes with ingested carbon. Image courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology College of Health Sciences.

It often seems that smoking will take years to impact your respiratory health. Although our small workers can handle occasional smoke inhalation—which I employ at campfires—it does create immediate work for the body.

Habitual smoke exposure can kill cilia and hinder the cells’ ability to regenerate it. Then coughing becomes a supplemental way to shove the mucus up and out. Overtime, irritants pile up in delicate lung spaces leading to progressive permanent damage while phagocytes play catch-up.

Summer Pellechio

About the author -- Summer Pellechio is a recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, N.Y.) in the B.S. in Biomedical Sciences program. Her undergraduate lab work at RIT focused on the frequencies of anergic gene polymorphisms associated with innate and adaptive immune responses in sickle cell disease populations. She feels fortunate that her strong work ethic and curiosity have led her to join the RIPL Effect Research Team. This is Summer's first blog with the RIPLRT



  • Netter’s Essential Histology (p. 342-345) by William Ovalle and Patrick Nahirney (2013).