What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is a condition that affects the airways to the lungs. It’s often caused by scarring that resulted from an infection or other inflammatory condition. You can also be born with a condition that makes it more likely to develop. Bronchiectasis harms the walls of the airways. Over time, they become scarred, inflamed, and widened. They then can’t clear out mucus. This damage can lead to serious lung infections and other major health problems.
The airways are made up of a series of branching tubes. These are called the bronchi, and the smaller ones are bronchioles. Through these tubes, the lungs bring oxygen into the body. They also remove carbon dioxide from the body.
The airways often have a coating of mucus. This sticky substance helps to remove dust, bacteria, and debris from the airways. Tiny, hairlike structures (cilia) help move the mucus along. This process clears away mucus. Over time, you then swallow or cough it up.
Different conditions, such as an infection, can cause mucus to build up in the airways. This buildup creates an ideal place for bacteria to grow. That can lead to more infections. Every infection hurts the airways a little more. They are then more likely to get another infection.
Over time, these repeated infections can permanently damage the walls of the airways. The airways widen. They become scarred and thickened. Over time, they may not be able to transfer oxygen in the air from the lungs to the body. Anyone can develop bronchiectasis. But it is more common in people identified as female at birth. In children, it affects people identified as male at birth more often.
Bronchiectasis is not common in the U.S. It is more widespread in parts of the world that have poor access to healthcare and a higher risk of lung infections.
How to say it
What causes bronchiectasis?
Anything that causes constant damage to the airways can lead to bronchiectasis. Lung infections are also a major cause. So, too, are diseases that either damage the lungs themselves or make lung infections more likely. These include:
- Cystic fibrosis (leads to nearly 50 of every 100 cases in the U.S.)
- Severe pneumonia infection
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Severe asthma
- Whooping cough or measles
- Fungal infections
- Immunodeficiency disorders
- Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA)
- Disorders that affect cilia function
- Chronically inhaling food or liquids into the lungs
- Certain autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Airway blockage (such as from an object breathed in as a child or from a tumor)
- Lung development problems that were present at birth (congenital)
In many cases, the exact cause is unknown.
Who is at risk for bronchiectasis?
You are more likely to get bronchiectasis if you have a condition that damages your airways or raises your chance of a lung infection. Treating these health problems can lower your risk of bronchiectasis.
What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?
Damage to the airways often starts in childhood. You may not have symptoms until months or years of repeated infections. Common signs include:
- Persistent cough (may become bloody)
- Large amounts of mucus (sputum) coughed up daily
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Thickening of the flesh under your fingernails and toenails (clubbing)
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Failure of a child to gain weight and grow correctly
Some people have few or no symptoms. Others have daily symptoms that get worse over time.
How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will first ask you about your health history. They will also give you an exam. You may need tests to help with the diagnosis. These tests may help figure out underlying causes that might need treatment. The tests may include:
- Chest CT scan. This shows precise pictures of your airways. It is typically used to make the diagnosis.
- Chest X-ray. This creates images of your heart and lungs.
- Blood tests. These are done to figure out if you have an underlying condition.
- Sputum culture. This is done to see if your sputum contains certain bacteria or fungi.
- Sweat test or genetic testing. This is done to rule out cystic fibrosis.
- Blood tests. These are done to see if you have low levels of antibodies (immunoglobulins) in your blood, or to rule out other causes of bronchiectasis.
- Lung function tests. These can see how much lung damage you have.
- Bronchoscopy. This looks inside the airways. It is done if you don’t respond to treatment.
How is bronchiectasis treated?
Bronchiectasis is often treated with medicine. You may also need physical therapy. You should stay hydrated, too. Drinking enough water can help prevent the mucus from thickening, which can make it hard to cough up.
Some possible medicines you may take are:
- Antibiotics. These treat the repeated infections.
- Bronchodilators. These relax your airway muscles and make breathing easier.
- Inhaled steroids. These decrease the inflammation (often combined in the same inhaler as bronchodilators).
- Expectorants and mucus thinners. These help loosen the mucus in the lungs and make it easier to cough up.
- Decongestants. These help ease congestion.
Chest physical therapy is another important part of treatment. It includes pounding your chest and back repeatedly to loosen the mucus from your lungs. You may also learn special breathing methods. These can move the mucus into the upper part of your airway so that you can cough it up. Your healthcare provider may also advise using a handheld or wearable device. These help move and clear mucus from your lungs. Many devices are available. Your provider will tell you the options that are best for you.
Some people may need oxygen therapy. Oxygen levels in their blood may be too low. Your healthcare provider may also advise surgery. It may be an option if other treatments haven’t worked and the condition is isolated in one area of the lung. In rare cases, you might need a lung transplant.
Your treatment plan will depend on the severity of your symptoms, your other health conditions, and other factors. Early diagnosis and treatment can stop the condition from getting worse.
What are possible complications of bronchiectasis?
Respiratory failure is one possible complication. It happens when not enough oxygen passes from your lungs into your blood. It can cause severe shortness of breath. Your skin may also turn a bluish color. You might need oxygen therapy or CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure).
As the airways become damaged, it may cause some of the blood vessels in the airways to have thinner walls. These are more likely to break open and cause bleeding from the lung. This is called hemoptysis.
If the mucus becomes thick and blocks the entire airway, a part of your lung may also collapse. That can cause more shortness of breath.
What can I do to prevent bronchiectasis?
The following steps can help prevent bronchiectasis:
- Make sure you and your children have had the vaccines for measles and whooping cough.
- Get annual flu vaccines and get advice about pneumonia vaccines.
- Stay away from harmful substances that can damage your lungs, such as smoke, gases, and fumes.
- Seek treatment right away for any lung infections.
- Watch children to make sure they don’t breathe in small objects. Get medical care right away if that happens.
- Quickly treat any condition that can cause bronchiectasis.
How to manage bronchiectasis
Your healthcare provider will tell you how to manage bronchiectasis. These instructions might include:
- Staying up-to-date on all vaccines, including those for the flu and pneumonia
- Washing your hands often
- Quitting smoking
- Eating a healthy diet
- Staying hydrated
- Staying physically active
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call your healthcare provider right away if you have the following symptoms:
- Trouble breathing
- Other signs of an infection
If your symptoms get worse, plan to see your healthcare provider soon.
Key points about bronchiectasis
- Bronchiectasis is a condition that affects the airways to the lungs. Over time, the airways aren’t able to clear mucus as well as before. Infections are then more likely to occur.
- It’s often caused by an infection or other inflammatory condition. You can also be born with a condition that makes it more likely to develop.
- Over time, it can cause serious health problems in some people. These include heart or respiratory failure.
- Early treatment of respiratory illnesses can help prevent bronchiectasis. It can also keep it from getting worse.
- Treatment may include medicine and physical therapy. You may also need to make some lifestyle changes.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions, especially after office hours and on weekends and holidays.