The “mucociliary escalator” is a term used to describe a built-in mechanism to keep our airways clean. This clearing system is complex, but in the simplest terms, it uses mucus to trap dirt, air pollution particles and pathogens. Then cilia, small hairs that undulate in the moving mucus, sweep the unwanted matter towards our throat where it is expectorated or swallowed.
This cleansing system is ongoing in healthy lungs as they too produce daily mucus to clear the decks. However, in diseased lungs such as those in bronchiectasis (BE), the ciliated areas are damaged and therefore, we make more mucus to compensate. The body does its best to sweep the airways clean, but often it is a herculean task that cannot be automatically accomplished day after day.
For this reason, we need to help out our lungs with daily airway clearance. Airway clearance is a broad term describing the effort to help the mucociliary escalator function more effectively. With BE, there are damaged areas in our lungs with little or no cilia allowing mucus to pool. This mucus needs to be removed, otherwise bacteria, viruses and fungi can feed on it and multiply.
Whether we use exercise, breathing and coughing techniques, gravity, or medical devices will depend on availability and preferences. What is important is that we do our best to assist our lungs in clearing airways regardless of how often we cough or how much mucus annoys us throughout the day. Working together with our lungs is essential to maintaining overall health and well being.
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Linda Cooper Esposito, MPH is a health educator with bronchiectasis. She developed the BE CLEAR Method to Living with Bronchiectasis and writes with compassion and humor about this chronic lung disease.