Inhalation (also known as inspiration) happens when air or other gases enter the lungs.
Inhalation of air, as part of the cycle of breathing, is a vital process for all human life. As such, it happens automatically (though there are exceptions in some disease states) and does not need conscious control or effort. However, breathing can be consciously controlled or interrupted (within limits).
Breathing allows oxygen (which humans and a lot of other species need for survival) to enter the lungs, from where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Examples of accidental inhalation includes inhalation of water (e.g. in drowning), smoke, food, vomitus and less common foreign substances (e.g. tooth fragments, coins, batteries, small toy parts, needles).
Legal - helium, nitrous oxide ("laughing gas")
Illegal - various gaseous, vaporised or aerosolized recreational drugs
Various specialized investigations use the inhalation of known substances for diagnostic purposes. Examples include pulmonary function testing (e.g. nitrogen washout test, diffusion capacity testing (carbon monoxide, helium, methane)) and diagnostic radiology (eg.radioactive xenon isotopes).
Carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust emissions.
Inhalation begins with the contraction of the muscles attached to the rib cage; this causes an expansion in the chest cavity. Then takes place the onset of contraction of the diaphragm, which results in expansion of the intrapleural space and an increase in negative pressure according to Boyle's law. This negative pressure generates airflow because of the pressure difference between the atmosphere and alveolus. Air enters, inflating the lung through either the nose or the mouth into the pharynx (throat) and trachea before entering the alveoli.
Other muscles that can be involved in inhalation include:
Hyperaeration or hyperinflation is where the lung volume is abnormally increased, with increased filling of the alveoli. This results in an increased radiolucency on X-ray, a reduction in lung markings and depression of the diaphragm. It may occur in partial obstruction of a large airway, as in e.g. congenital lobar emphysema, bronchial atresia and mucous plugs in asthma.