Saturday, 29 October 2016

Drowning from the inside

Discover magazine reports on a “robot smoker”, a remarkable fusion of engineering, IT and biochemistry, which is helping to explain what goes on in the lungs of tobacco smokers. (The whole article is here.)

But it is not just smokers themselves who are affected. The researchers looked at
the cilia [...] — tiny hairs responsible for clearing bacteria-carrying mucus out of our lungs. A heavy smokers’ characteristic cough is a sign that their lung cilia aren’t working as well as they should be. Previous studies of smokers looking at the cilia had proved inconclusive, however. Using their new chip, the researchers say that they have found good evidence that the cilia become impaired after being exposed to smoke. While they still waved around about as much as healthy cilia on average, their waving was much less coordinated, and there tended to be more weaker cilia. This could readily lead to a build-up of mucus in the lungs and the tell-tale “smokers’ cough.”

Note the phrase "exposed to smoke". Children brought up in a household where both parents smoke, a common situation in the 1940s and 1950s, are at risk of having their lungs damaged. (Add asthma and colleagues will realise why it takes me longer to recover from bad colds than most people. Even after the infection has gone, it takes at least as long to get rid of the mucus, which actually seems to increase during the recovery period, leading to a feeling of drowning from the inside.)

This is why legislators took the seemingly illiberal step of banning smoking in cars where children are present. The smaller enclosed space of a car, especially on a long journey, presents more dangers than smoking in the home.

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