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Respiratory System Anatomy

Discover the intricate and fascinating world of respiratory system anatomy, unraveling the secrets behind our breath and the intricate mechanisms that keep us alive.

USMLE Guide: Respiratory System Anatomy


The respiratory system is a vital part of the human body responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Understanding the anatomy of the respiratory system is crucial for medical students preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This guide provides an overview of the key components and structures of the respiratory system.

Nasal Cavity

The nasal cavity is the starting point of the respiratory system. It consists of two main chambers separated by the nasal septum. Key structures within the nasal cavity include:

  • Nasal Conchae: Also known as turbinates, these bony structures help increase the surface area of the nasal cavity, aiding in the filtration, warming, and humidification of inhaled air.
  • Nasal Meatuses: Grooves between the nasal conchae that enhance airflow and direct mucus drainage.
  • Olfactory Receptors: Located in the superior portion of the nasal cavity, these receptors are responsible for the sense of smell.


The pharynx, commonly known as the throat, serves as a common pathway for both air and food. It is divided into three regions:

  1. Nasopharynx: Located behind the nasal cavity, the nasopharynx contains the adenoids and the opening of the Eustachian tube.
  2. Oropharynx: Situated behind the oral cavity, the oropharynx contains the tonsils and serves as a passage for both air and food.
  3. Laryngopharynx: The lowermost part of the pharynx, extending from the hyoid bone to the opening of the esophagus. It serves as a passage for food and air and is lined with stratified squamous epithelium.


The larynx, also known as the voice box, is situated in the anterior neck region. Key structures and features of the larynx include:

  • Epiglottis: A leaf-shaped cartilaginous flap that prevents food from entering the trachea during swallowing.
  • Vocal Cords: Composed of two pairs, the vocal cords are responsible for voice production. The superior pair is known as the false vocal cords, while the inferior pair is referred to as the true vocal cords.
  • Glottis: The space between the vocal cords through which air passes during breathing.


The trachea, commonly known as the windpipe, is a tube-like structure located anterior to the esophagus. Key features of the trachea include:

  • C-shaped Cartilage Rings: The trachea is supported by 15-20 C-shaped cartilage rings, which provide structural support while allowing flexibility during swallowing.
  • Mucociliary Escalator: The tracheal lining is covered with ciliated cells that propel mucus upward, helping to trap and remove foreign particles from the respiratory tract.
  • Carina: The point where the trachea bifurcates into the right and left main bronchi.

Bronchial Tree

The bronchial tree consists of a series of branching airways that conduct air into the lungs. Key components of the bronchial tree include:

  • Main Bronchi: The trachea divides into the right and left main bronchi, which enter the respective lungs.
  • Lobar (Secondary) Bronchi: Each main bronchus further divides into lobar bronchi, supplying air to the different lobes of the lungs.
  • Segmental (Tertiary) Bronchi: Lobar bronchi further divide into segmental bronchi, providing air to specific lung segments.
  • Bronchioles: Fine tubes that arise from segmental bronchi, eventually leading to the alveoli.
  • Alveoli: Tiny air sacs where gas exchange occurs, allowing oxygen to enter the bloodstream and carbon dioxide to be expelled.


Understanding the anatomy of the respiratory system is essential for medical students preparing for the USMLE. This guide provides a concise overview of the key structures and components involved, including the nasal cavity, pharynx, larynx, trachea, and bronchial tree. Familiarity with these structures will aid in diagnosing and managing respiratory disorders effectively.

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