Written by Carmella Wint and Matthew Solan | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP


Bronchiectasis is a condition where the bronchial tubes of your lungs are permanently damaged and enlarged. These damaged air passages allow bacteria and mucus to build up in your lungs, which result in infections and blockages in the airways. Bronchiectasis can be treated, allowing you to live a normal life. However, it cannot be cured. Flare-ups of the condition must be treated promptly to avoid oxygen deprivation to the rest of your body.

What are the Causes of Bronchiectasis?

The most common cause of bronchiectasis is infection in your lungs. Viral infections like the flu or bacterial infections like staph are common culprits. Tuberculosis is also a cause. Breathing in foreign objects, or food while eating, can cause bronchiectasis. Aspiration of stomach acids can also create inflammation in your lungs. Any weakness in your immune system can put you at risk.

Cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease where mucus builds up in the lungs and other organs like the stomach, resulting in repeated infections, accounts for about one-third of all cases of bronchiectasis. Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), chronic bronchitis and emphysema, obstruct the lungs and raises your risk for bronchiectasis.

What are the Symptoms of Bronchiectasis?

Symptoms of bronchiectasis can take months or even years to develop. Some symptoms are:

  • chronic coughing
  • coughing up blood
  • abnormal sounds or wheezing in the chest on breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing up large amounts of mucus daily
  • bad breath odor
  • skin with a blue appearance
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • thickening of the skin under your nails and toes

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment.

How is Bronchiectasis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will listen to your lungs to check for any abnormal sounds or evidence of airway blockage.. You also will likely need a complete blood test looking for infection. A sputum test will check your coughed-up mucous for viruses or bacteria. A chest X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan will provide your doctor images of your lungs. Pulmonary function tests can check how well air is flowing into your lungs. Your doctor may also order a purified protein derivative (PPD) skin test to check for tuberculosis.

Treatment Options for Bronchiectasis

There is no cure for bronchiectasis, but prompt treatments can help you to manage the condition. The main goal of treatment is to keep infections and bronchial secretions under control. Preventing further obstructions of the airways and lung damage is also critical. Common methods of treating bronchiectasis are:

  • antibiotics to fight infection
  • bronchodilators like albuterol (Proventil) and tiotropium (Spiriva) to open up airways
  • medications to thin mucus
  • expectorants to aid in coughing up mucus
  • oxygen therapy

You may need the help of a high-frequency, chest wall oscillation vest to rid your lungs of mucus. The vest gently compresses and releases your chest, creating the same effect as a cough. This dislodges mucus from the walls of the bronchial tubes.

If there is bleeding in the lung, or if the bronchiectasis is located in only one portion of your lung, surgery may be an option to remove the affected area. Draining of the bronchial secretions may also be performed on a daily basis as a part of treatment. A respiratory therapist can teach you techniques to aid in coughing up the excess mucus.

If your case of bronchiectasis is caused by conditions like immune disorders or COPD, your doctor will treat those conditions as well.

Can Bronchiectasis be Prevented?

Early treatment of any lung infection is essential to prevent bronchiectasis. You should have your children vaccinated against flu, pertussis, and measles, as these conditions have been linked to the condition in adulthood. Avoid polluted air and protect your lungs from chemical fumes. Quitting smoking is vital to lung health.

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