Bronchiectasis is a condition where the bronchial tubes of your lungs are permanently damaged, widened, and thickened. These damaged air passages allow bacteria and mucus to build up and pool in your lungs. This results in frequent infections and blockages of the airways.

There’s no cure for bronchiectasis, but it’s manageable. With treatment, you can usually live a typical life.

However, flare-ups must be treated quickly to maintain oxygen flow to the rest of your body and prevent further lung damage. Read on for more information about bronchiectasis and its symptoms, causes, treatment, and more.

Illustration of healthy bronchus and one with bronchiectasis.Share on Pinterest
The left image is a bronchus without bronchiectasis compared with an image of bronchiectasis. Illustration by Maya Chastain

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

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you should contact a doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment.

Any lung injury can cause bronchiectasis. There are two main categories of this condition:

The risk of developing bronchiectasis increases with age, though younger people can have it. Women are more likely to have it than men.

Other health conditions that can put you at risk of having bronchiectasis include:

A chest computed tomography (CT) scan is the most common test for diagnosing bronchiectasis because a chest X-ray does not provide enough detail.

This painless test creates precise pictures of your airways and other structures in your chest. A chest CT scan can show the extent and location of lung damage.

After bronchiectasis is confirmed with the chest CT scan, your doctor will try to establish the cause of the bronchiectasis based on your history and physical exam findings.

It’s important to find out the exact cause so the clinician can treat the underlying disorder to prevent the bronchiectasis from getting worse. There are numerous causes that can induce or contribute to bronchiectasis.

The evaluation for the underlying cause mainly consists of laboratory and microbiologic testing and pulmonary function testing.

Your initial evaluation will likely include:

If your doctor suspects CF, they’ll order a sweat chloride test or genetic test.

Tips for living with bronchiectasis

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The exact cause of bronchiectasis is unknown in about 50 percent of the cases of non-CF bronchiectasis.

For others, it’s related to atypical genetic characteristics and other medical conditions that affect the lungs. Ways to prevent bronchiectasis include:

  • not smoking tobacco products or quitting smoking
  • avoiding polluted air
  • getting your vaccination against the flu, whooping cough, pneumonia, measles, and COVID-19
  • taking antibiotics to prevent and treat infections if you have conditions that put you at risk (studies are currently being done on new formulations of inhaled antibiotics)

When the cause is unknown, prevention may be challenging. Early recognition of bronchiectasis is important so that you can get treatment before significant lung damage occurs.

There’s no cure for bronchiectasis in general, but treatment is important to help you manage the condition. The main goal of treatment is to keep infections and bronchial secretions manageable. The most common treatment options for bronchiectasis include:

  • Chest physiotherapy. One form of chest physiotherapy is a high frequency chest wall oscillation vest to help clear 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.
  • Surgery. If there’s bleeding in your lung, or if the bronchiectasis is only in one part of your lung, you may need surgery to remove the affected area.
  • Draining secretions. Another part of daily treatment involves draining the bronchial secretions, aided by gravity. A respiratory therapist can teach you techniques to aid in coughing up the excess mucus.
  • Treating underlying conditions. If conditions like immune disorders or COPD are causing your bronchiectasis, your doctor will also treat those conditions.
  • Lifestyle changes. Things like exercise, eating a healthy diet, and drinking plenty of water may help improve the symptoms of bronchiectasis.

The outlook for people with bronchiectasis depends on the severity of the condition and what is causing it.

Bronchiectasis affects 350,000 to 500,000 people in the U.S. While severe bronchiectasis can be fatal, individuals with the non-CF type generally have a good outlook with treatment.

Early diagnosis is important so that treatment can begin and additional lung damage can be prevented.

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