As levels of air pollution rise, so does the incidence of pulmonary diseases like asthma. Treatments for these diseases largely rely on inhalers containing drug particles that need to be carried into the small bronchi of the lungs. To better understand how the process works, researchers used computational fluid dynamics to simulate how air and particles travel through the human respiratory tract.
The team found that larger particles tended to get stuck in the mouth instead of making it down into the lungs. This problem was made worse at high inhalation rates because the particles’ inertia was too large for them to make the sharp turn down into the trachea. In contrast, smaller particles could travel down into the lungs and into the smaller branches there before settling. The authors concluded that inhalers should use fine drug particles to maximize delivery into the lungs. They also note that adjusting inhalers to deliver more medication to the lungs may also lower the overall price because less of the dosage gets wasted in the patient’s mouth.
Of course, the study’s results also serve as a warning about the dangers of air pollution from fine particulates. Here in Colorado, our summers are punctuated with wildfire smoke, much of it in the form of tiny particles about the same size as the drug particles in this study. If fine drug particles are effective at making it into the smaller branches of our lungs, so are those pollutants. That’s a good reason to stay inside in smoky conditions or use a high-quality N-95 mask while out and about. (Image credit: coltsfan; research credit: A. Tiwari et al.; via Physics World; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)