News / Chest Physio Tips: Clearing the Lungs

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Are you sick? Do you have a cough? Are you struggling to breathe or clear the cough? Well there are some chest physio techniques that can help clear that chest this winter that might get you back fighting fitter quicker than expected. 


Some quick discussions around the lungs.

The lungs are the breathing apparatus of the human body. You have a left and right sided lung which is split into 2 and 3 zones respectively. When we are normally breathing we breathe through the top portion of the lunges. When we deep breathe we use the majority of the lunges. The majority of Carbon dioxide and Oxygen is transferred in the lower part of the lungs. Due to these parts of the lungs not being used as often and gravity forcing fluid down to the lower portions, you generally are more susceptible to get sick in the lower lungs. Think of the lungs like a slinky – they open easily and well at the top but it takes effort and force to open the bottom portion. 


So when we get a chest infection/cold/flu – the mucus that builds up in the lungs overwhelmes the normal mechanisms we use to clear the lungs, hence you can get a build up of mucus and potentially a reduction of Oxygen intake into the body. This leads to feeling short of breath and a heavy feeling in the lungs. The normal technique we use to clear the lungs is a cough. This is a high velocity movement of air escaping from the lungs. When we cough, the muscles that surround the big airways of the lungs cause them to collapse. Hence when you go into a coughing fit this is normally due to the fact that the airways are irritated, collapse and hence you struggle to breathe. If this continues you can damage the airways. 


A better way to clear the airways and lungs is a chest Physio technique called a huff. A huff keeps the airways open but allows for the mucus to be expelled from the lungs. This therefore increasing the oxygen exchange in the body. 


A huff is simply like fogging up your glasses to clean them. Sitting up nice and straight – take a deep breath in – then with an open mouth – forcibly expel the air from the lungs. Repeat this 2-3 times. It may induce a cough. With the cough, try to take deep breaths in between the cough to avoid that coughing fit, which doesn’t really clear the lungs and can do damage as discussed. On a successful huff you should clear some mucus. I know it’s weird but take a notice as to how big it is (ie a 20 c coin size), what colour it is (anything but clear may indicate an infection) and how thick it is. This will help you to know how far through the journey you are in your sickness. Thick greeny yellow mucus normally means you are near the start of your journey. 


The lungs are a negative pressure area, ie when you breathe out, you are forced to take another breath in because the outside air is positive and wants to rush into the lungs to refill them. 


Another chest Physio technique you can use to clear your lungs is called pursed lip breathing. By creating a small opening/exit, this creates a higher pressure flow and helps to stop the small airways in the lungs from collapsing due to the pressure changes. So making your mouth into the shape of like you are whistling and breathing in through the mouth and out through the mouth can help to get more oxygen in without collapsing the lungs. 


Finally – your accessory muscles that are around the neck and lungs generally have multiple functions. One of which is to support the lung movements. Using a lean forward position – ie resting your arms on a bench when sitting – can help to rest these muscles and allow them to then do their other functions easier. Hence this may be useful to help reduce any neck pain. 


So to put it all together.

If you are sick with cough or cold and are struggling with clearing your chest you should:


  1. Sit upright with slight lean forward with your arms supported 
  2. Breath through pursed lips 
  3. Conduct a huff to clear the lungs of the mucus 
  4. Be kind to yourself – you are sick and the body needs time to heal


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