What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis (say "brawn-kee-ECK-tuh-sus") is a lung problem in which the breathing tubes (airways) in the lungs are stretched and become larger.
It starts when your airways are damaged. The damage may be caused by another health problem—usually cystic fibrosis—or a lung infection such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. Other causes include whooping cough and autoimmune problems, such as AIDS. Bronchiectasis can also be congenital, which means you were born with it.
The damaged airways have a hard time getting rid of mucus (sputum), so the mucus builds up. This causes the airways to stretch and can lead to swelling and repeated infections.
Each time you get an infection, your airways are further damaged. It may become harder and harder to breathe.
Even though there's no cure for the disease, there are things you can do at home to manage your symptoms and live a full life.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are different for everyone. But common symptoms include:
- A cough that brings up mucus.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain that is sudden and stabbing. It may get worse when you breathe in. The pain may spread to the shoulder or the belly.
- Clubbing. The ends of the fingers and toes swell and the nails bulge outward. The nails wrap around the fingers or toes and look raised, curved, and shiny.
How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose bronchiectasis by giving you a physical exam and doing some medical tests.
If you have a cough every day that produces mucus, your doctor may want to do a chest X-ray or a chest CT scan. Other tests your doctor may do include blood tests to look for infection, a test to find bacteria in your mucus, and tests to measure how well your lungs are working (lung function).
How is it treated?
Bronchiectasis is treated with antibiotics, medicines to relax the airways (bronchodilators), and medicines to make it easier to cough up mucus (expectorants).
Your doctor may teach you airway clearance techniques to help you cough up mucus.
- In postural drainage, you move your body into different positions to help drain fluid from the lungs. This helps to ease breathing and prevent infections.
- In chest percussion, you clap your chest with a cupped hand to vibrate the airways in the lungs. The vibration helps you cough up mucus.
- Your doctor may give you an airway clearance device, such as a flutter valve to help remove mucus from the lungs.
If the bronchiectasis is severe, you may need oxygen therapy or surgery.
How can you care for yourself?
Even though there is no cure for bronchiectasis, you can manage it and lead a normal life. To help yourself:
- Follow your doctor's instructions for taking steps to remove mucus from your lungs.
- Follow your doctor's instructions for taking your medicines.
- Drink plenty of fluids. This helps keep mucus thin and slippery so it's easier to cough up.
- Follow the eating plan that your doctor suggests.
- Be active. Activity helps loosen mucus, encourages coughing, improves oxygen flow, and makes you feel better.
- Avoid lung infections.
- Get shots to protect against the flu and pneumococcal disease.
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid close contact with people who have colds or the flu.
- Don't smoke or allow others to smoke around you. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
- Stay inside, if you can, on days when the pollution level is high.
Other Works Consulted
- Federico M, et al. (2014). Respiratory tract and mediastinum. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 534–587. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: July 6, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine