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.
Symptoms of bronchiectasis can take months or even years to develop. Some typical symptoms include:
- chronic daily cough
- coughing up blood
- atypical sounds or wheezing in your chest with breathing
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- coughing up large amounts of thick mucus every day
- weight loss
- change in the structure of your fingernails and toenails, known as clubbing
- frequent respiratory infections
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:
- Cystic fibrosis (CF) bronchiectasis. This type is related to having CF and is a genetic condition that causes atypical production of mucus. CF affects your lungs and other organs, like your pancreas and liver. This results in repeated infections in your lungs and may cause bronchiectasis.
- Non-CF bronchiectasis. This type is not related to CF. The most common known conditions that
can leadto non-CF bronchiectasis include:
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:
- complete blood count with differential
- immunoglobulin levels (IgG, IgM, and IgA)
- sputum culture to check for bacteria, mycobacteria, and fungi
If your doctor suspects CF, they’ll order a sweat chloride test or genetic test.
Tips for living with bronchiectasis
- Follow your bronchiectasis treatment plan.
- Take your medications as prescribed.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
- Drink lots of water and other nonalcoholic beverages.
- Follow a gentle exercise routine.
- Practice good sleep hygiene.
- Get your annual flu shot.
- Get your COVID-19 vaccination and booster.
- Wash your hands.
- Perform breathing exercises and techniques.
- Maintain good posture.
- Save your energy.
- Relax and incorporate rest periods throughout your day.
- Do your more difficult tasks when your energy levels are highest.
- Ask for help when you need it.
The exact cause of bronchiectasis is unknown in about
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.