Air enters the body through the mouth or nose and quickly moves to the pharynx, or throat. From there, it passes through the larynx, or voice box, and enters the trachea.
The trachea is a strong tube that contains rings of cartilage that prevent it from collapsing.
Within the lungs, the trachea branches into a left and right bronchus. These further divide into smaller and smaller branches called bronchioles.
The smallest bronchioles end in tiny air sacs. These are called alveoli. They inflate when a person inhales and deflate when a person exhales.
During gas exchange oxygen moves from the lungs to the bloodstream. At the same time carbon dioxide passes from the blood to the lungs. This happens in the lungs between the alveoli and a network of tiny blood vessels called capillaries, which are located in the walls of the alveoli.
Here you see red blood cells traveling through the capillaries. The walls of the alveoli share a membrane with the capillaries. That's how close they are.
This lets oxygen and carbon dioxide diffuse, or move freely, between the respiratory system and the bloodstream.
Oxygen molecules attach to red blood cells, which travel back to the heart. At the same time, the carbon dioxide molecules in the alveoli are blown out of the body the next time a person exhales.
Gas exchange allows the body to replenish the oxygen and eliminate the carbon dioxide. Doing both is necessary for survival.
Review Date 7/21/2022
Updated by: Frank D. Brodkey, MD, FCCM, Associate Professor, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.