Air first enters the body through the mouth or nose, quickly moves to the pharynx (throat), passes through the larynx (voice box), enters the trachea, which branches into a left and right bronchus within the lungs and further divides into smaller and smaller branches called bronchioles. The smallest bronchioles end in tiny air sacs, called alveoli, which inflate during inhalation, and deflate during exhalation.
Gas exchange is the delivery of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream, and the elimination of carbon dioxide from the bloodstream to the lungs. It occurs in the lungs between the alveoli and a network of tiny blood vessels called capillaries, which are located in the walls of the alveoli.
The walls of the alveoli actually share a membrane with the capillaries in which oxygen and carbon dioxide 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 with the next exhalation.
The primary function of the respiratory system is to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. Inhaled oxygen enters the lungs and reaches the alveoli. The layers of cells lining the alveoli and the surrounding capillaries are each only one cell thick and are in very close contact with each other. This barrier between air and blood averages about 1 micron (1/10,000 of a centimeter, or 0.000039 inch) in thickness. Oxygen passes quickly through this air-blood barrier into the blood in the capillaries. Similarly, carbon dioxide passes from the blood into the alveoli and is then exhaled.
Oxygenated blood travels from the lungs through the pulmonary veins and into the left side of the heart, which pumps the blood to the rest of the body (see Biology of the Heart : Function of the Heart). Oxygen-deficient, carbon dioxide-rich blood returns to the right side of the heart through two large veins, the superior vena cava and the inferior vena cava. Then the blood is pumped through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, where it picks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide.
Gas Exchange Between Alveoli and Capillaries: To support the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, about 5 to 8 liters (about 1.3 to 2.1 gallons) of air per minute are brought in and out of the lungs, and about three tenths of a liter of oxygen is transferred from the alveoli to the blood each minute, even when the person is at rest. At the same time, a similar volume of carbon dioxide moves from the blood to the alveoli and is exhaled. During exercise, it is possible to breathe in and out more than 100 liters (about 26 gallons) of air per minute and extract 3 liters (a little less than 1 gallon) of oxygen from this air per minute. The rate at which oxygen is used by the body is one measure of the rate of energy expended by the body. Breathing in and out is accomplished by respiratory muscles.
Air is brought to the alveoli in small doses (called the tidal volume), by breathing in (inhalation) and out (exhalation) through the respiratory airways, a set of relatively narrow and moderately long tubes which start at the nose or mouth and end in the alveoli of the lungs in the chest. Air moves in and out through the same set of tubes, in which the flow is in one direction during inhalation, and in the opposite direction during exhalation.
During each inhalation, at rest, approximately 500 ml of fresh air flows in through the nose. Its is warmed and moistened as it flows through the nose and pharynx. By the time it reaches the trachea the inhaled air's temperature is 37 °C and it is saturated with water vapor. On arrival in the alveoli it is diluted and thoroughly mixed with the approximately 2.5–3.0 liters of air that remained in the alveoli after the last exhalation. This relatively large volume of air that is semi-permanently present in the alveoli throughout the breathing cycle is known as the functional residual capacity (FRC).
At the beginning of inhalation the airways are filled with unchanged alveolar air, left over from the last exhalation. This is the dead space volume, which is usually about 150 ml. It is the first air to re-enter the alveoli during inhalation. Only after the dead space air has returned to the alveoli does the remainder of the tidal volume (500 ml - 150 ml = 350 ml) enter the alveoli. The entry of such a small volume of fresh air with each inhalation, ensures that the composition of the FRC hardly changes during the breathing cycle.