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Respiratory tract

Synonyms: airways
German: Atemwege

1 Definition

The respiratory tract refers to all parts of the respiratory system that serve as pathways between the outside world and the alveoli. In a narrower sense, the respiratory tract only includes the air-conducting components. In clinical usage, however, the gas-exchanging components (alveoli) are also generally included in this term.

2 Anatomy

The respiratory tract consists of a series of hollow organs which serve to transport air to the alveolar system of the lungs. The respiratory tract includes the following structures:

2.1 Upper respiratory tract

2.2 Lower respiratory tract

3 Histology

A large portion of the respiratory tract is lined with a specialised tissue, the respiratory epithelium.

4 Physiology

The respiratory tract performs a number of important functions that serve to prepare the tidal air. These mainly include humidification, heating, filtering, and immunological defence. Foreign bodies and dust are removed via a continuous self-cleaning process, mucociliary clearance.

Because the respiratory tract does not participate in gas exchange, its total volume of the tidal volume is referred to as dead space.

5 Pathophysiological notes

After the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract has the highest germ count. This has consequences for the recognition and elimination of pathogens via the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). It also leads to infections of the respiratory tract, especially bronchitis.

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