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.
Update Date 10/27/2014
Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.