Guide to Bronchial Spasms

Medically reviewed by Justin Choi, MD on March 22, 2017Written by James Roland on March 22, 2017

What are bronchial spasms?

When you breathe, air travels through your throat and trachea, which is also known as your windpipe. Then it travels into and out of your bronchial tubes. These tubes extend into your lungs and branch into smaller air passages.

Normally, the muscles surrounding your bronchial tubes are thin and smooth, and they allow air to flow easily. If you have a respiratory problem, such as asthma, these muscles can contract and narrow your airway. When that happens, it’s called a bronchial spasm, or a bronchospasm. During a bronchial spasm, breathing becomes more difficult. You may find yourself wheezing as you try to catch your breath.

In many cases, bronchial spasms are treatable or preventable.

What are the symptoms of bronchial spasms?

Bronchial spasms usually come on quickly. They can cause a feeling of tightness in your chest that makes it difficult to catch your breath. Wheezing is one of the most common symptoms of a bronchial spasm. You may also cough a lot when your bronchial tubes are constricted. This wheezing and coughing can make it difficult to get through daily activities and get a good night’s sleep.

Depending on the cause of your bronchial spasms, your bronchial glands may also produce more mucus. This can contribute to your cough and make your airways even narrower.

What causes bronchial spasms?

Bronchial spasms occur when your bronchial tubes become inflamed. This inflammation may be caused by asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or other serious respiratory problems.

Asthma

Asthma is an inflammatory disease that can affect your lungs. Asthma attacks occur when the lining of your bronchioles swell and the muscles around them get tight.

Allergic asthma is one of the most common forms of asthma. If you have allergy-induced asthma, your bronchial tubes will constrict when you inhale substances that trigger an allergic reaction. These substances are known as allergens. Common allergens include plant pollens, pet dander, and dust.

Nonallergic asthma can be triggered by irritants such as air pollution, cigarette or wood-fire smoke, fumes from household cleaning products, or very cold air. Exercise can also trigger an asthma attack in some people.

Bronchitis, COPD, and emphysema

Bronchitis is another common cause of bronchial spasms. Acute bronchitis can develop as a complication of a respiratory infection or cold. It’s a temporary condition that can typically be treated with medications.

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term problem. It’s one of the conditions that make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a group of progressive lung diseases that make it harder for you to breathe.

Emphysema is another disease that falls under the umbrella of COPD. In this condition, the tiny air sacs in your lungs become damaged or destroyed. This impairs their ability to fill with air and deflate properly.

What are the risk factors for bronchial spasms?

You’re at higher risk of developing asthma, a common cause of bronchial spasms, if you have another allergic condition. For example, if you have food allergy or eczema, you’re more likely to develop asthma. You’re also more likely to experience it if you have a close relative with asthma or other allergic conditions.

Heavy smokers are at greater risk of developing asthma and most other lung problems, including acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. Inhaling secondhand smoke also increases your risk of these conditions. Frequent exposure to air pollution or chemicals in your home or workplace can also increase your chances of developing them.

Older adults, young children, and anyone whose immune system is impaired face greater chances of developing respiratory infections. These infections can lead to acute bronchitis and bronchial spasms.

How are bronchial spasms diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing bronchial spasms, your doctor will probably ask you about your current symptoms and medical history. They will listen to your chest with a stethoscope for signs of wheezing or other symptoms. They may also conduct other tests to learn what’s causing your bronchial spasms.

For example, your doctor may order a chest X-ray or other imaging tests. This can help them assess your lung health and check for signs of infection or structural abnormalities.

They may conduct a spirometry test. This measures how much air you can inhale and exhale. It also measures how fast you can empty your lungs. All of these actions can be severely limited if your bronchial tubes are inflamed and narrowed.

If they suspect you have allergic asthma, your doctor may refer you to an allergist for allergy testing. This can help them identify any allergens that might trigger your symptoms.

If they suspect you have acute bronchitis, your doctor may collect a sample of your mucus to send to a laboratory for testing. This can help them learn if your symptoms are caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection.

How are bronchial spasms treated?

Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan may vary, depending on the cause of your bronchial spasms. They will likely prescribe an inhaler to help relieve your symptoms. They may also prescribe other treatments or lifestyle changes.

If you have asthma, your doctor will likely prescribe one or more bronchodilators to help open your constricted airways. There are two main types of bronchodilators, both of which are delivered using handheld inhalers. You can use a long-acting inhaler to help prevent symptoms from developing. You can also use a quick-acting version, which is sometimes called a “rescue inhaler.” The quick-acting version can help relieve symptoms that come on suddenly during an asthma attack.

If you have acute bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe inhaled steroids. They can provide quick relief for bronchial spasms. However, they should only be used on a short-term basis. Long-term use of inhaled steroids can cause side effects, such as weaker bones and high blood pressure.

Your doctor may also prescribe other medications to treat the infection that’s causing your acute bronchitis. For example, a bacterial infection will require antibiotics to treat.

If you have chronic bronchitis or emphysema, your doctor will likely prescribe inhalers and antibiotics. They may also recommend oxygen therapy if your symptoms are very serious. In severe cases of COPD, you may be eligible for a lung transplant.

Your doctor may also encourage you to adjust your lifestyle to avoid triggers that make your bronchial spasms worse. For example, they may advise you to stay indoors on days when the air quality outside is bad or when plant-pollen allergens are in season.

What are the potential complications of bronchial spasms?

Bronchial spasms limit your ability to exercise. Over time, this can have far-reaching effects on your fitness and overall health, which depends on your ability to be physically active.

Serious bronchial spasms can also limit the amount of oxygen that you inhale. Your vital organs depend on an adequate supply of oxygen to work properly. If you’re unable to take in enough oxygen, your organs and other tissues may suffer.

If you have bronchial spasms that are getting worse, it may be a sign that the underlying cause is getting worse too or is no longer responding to treatment. For example, it may be a sign that your asthma is poorly controlled.

What is the outlook?

If your bronchial spasms are well-controlled through medications or other treatments, the underlying condition that causes them may have little impact on your quality of life.

If a respiratory infection is causing your bronchospasms, treating the underlying infection should have you breathing easier soon.

If you have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or another chronic respiratory condition, you will have to take ongoing steps to manage it. But if you work with your doctor to develop an effective treatment plan and follow their advice, you may be able to limit your bronchial spasms and maintain a good quality of life.

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