The two lungs are the primary organs of the respiratory system. Other components of the respiratory system conduct air to the lungs, such as the trachea (windpipe) which branches into smaller structures called bronchi.
The process of breathing (respiration) is divided into two distinct phases, inspiration (inhalation) and expiration (exhalation). During inspiration, the diaphragm contracts and pulls downward while the muscles between the ribs contract and pull upward. This increases the size of the thoracic cavity and decreases the pressure inside. As a result, air rushes in and fills the lungs.
During expiration, the diaphragm relaxes, and the volume of the thoracic cavity decreases, while the pressure within it increases. As a result, the lungs contract and air is forced out.
Update Date 10/27/2014
Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.