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Diseases A–Z

Bronchiectasis

Causes | Symptoms | Treatment | Prevention

Bronchiectasis is a rare disease that affects people’s lungs.

With bronchiectasis, people’s airways (bronchial tubes) are damaged:

  • Bronchiectasis damages the tiny hairs (cilia) that line the inside of your airways. Damaged cilia can't do their job of sweeping dirt and mucus out of your lungs.
  • With bronchiectasis, your airways widen and stretch out. In some places the airways are so stretched out they form little pockets. Germs, dust and mucus collect in these pockets and get stuck.
  • After a while the germs, dust and mucus that are stuck in your airways get infected. Your tiny hairs (cilia) can't sweep them away, so the infections keep coming back. People with bronchiectasis get many infections in their airways.

Bronchiectasis creates a vicious cycle; infections in airway pockets damage your airways, and when your airways are damaged you get more infections.

Bronchiectasis can’t be cured, but with the right treatment, most people with bronchiectasis can live relatively normal lives.

People with advanced cases of bronchiectasis can have more difficulty with day-to-day activities.

Who gets bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis affects adults, children and infants.

Adults usually acquire (get) bronchiectasis after an infection in the lungs, for example, after pneumonia or tuberculosis.

In babies and children, bronchiectasis is often caused by a congenital problem — a problem they're born with, or a problem they develop during birth. The main congenital cause of bronchiectasis is cystic fibrosis.

What causes bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis can be caused by many things:

  • infections that damage the airways (pneumonia, tuberculosis)
  • something blocking off part the airways, for example, a piece of food stuck in the airway
  • cystic fibrosis
  • diseases that affects the tiny hairs (cilia) inside the airways, for example primary ciliary dyskinesia, Kartagener’s syndrome
Symptoms of bronchiectasis

The most common symptom of bronchiectasis is a cough that’s chronic (it doesn’t go away) and productive (it brings up phlegm/mucus). 90% of people with bronchiectasis have a chronic cough, and almost 80% of people with bronchiectasis cough up mucus every single day.

Bronchiectasis causes people to cough up large amounts of mucus. The mucus is sometimes yellow or green and it sometimes smells bad.

Other symptoms of bronchiectasis include:
  • feeling short of breath
  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • coughing up blood
  • fever
  • weakness
  • weight loss without trying

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Treatment of bronchiectasis

Having bronchiectasis makes it hard for your lung’s natural cleaning system to clear out germs, dust and mucus. People with bronchiectasis have to clear their lungs every day, to get rid of germs, dust and mucus. Clearing your lungs helps prevent infections.

The main treatments for bronchiectasis are medications and chest physical therapy. If your bronchiectasis is caused by an underlying disease or infection, your doctor will treat that too. Sometimes people with advanced bronchiectasis get surgery or a lung transplant.

Medications for bronchiectasis
  • Antibiotics: You can take antibiotic pills, liquid or get antibiotics intravenously (through an IV into your veins). IV antibiotics can be taken at the hospital or at home, with the help of a nurse.
  • Bronchodilators: relax your airway muscles.
  • Corticosteroids: work slowly to reduce the swelling in your airways.
  • Mucus thinners: thin your mucus to make it easier to cough it up.
  • Expectorants: help bring up the mucus.
Chest Physical Therapy (CPT, percussion, postural drainage) for bronchiectasis

Chest physical therapy is a way of loosening the mucus in your chest. People usually do chest physical therapy while sitting or lying with their heads down (postural drainage). The therapy helps loosen the mucus, and lying with your head down helps the mucus drain away from your lungs.

After you’ve loosened the mucus, it’s easier to cough it up. People with bronchiectasis often do CPT and cough up mucus three or four times a day. There are different ways of doing chest physical therapy:

  • some people use their fist to pound on their chest
  • other people use a device, for example: an electric chest clapper, an inflated vest, a “flutter” machine or a positive expiratory pressure mask

There are also breathing exercises that help loosen mucus.

For more information on bronchiectasis treatment and breathing exercises, please see this page from the U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

Staying healthy when you have bronchiectasis

People with bronchiectasis can get flare-ups, times when their symptoms are worse. If you have bronchiectasis, stay as healthy as possible by:

Preventing bronchiectasis

Some cases of bronchiectasis can’t be prevented; other cases CAN be prevented by getting treatment for lung infections right away. Getting help right away means there is less chance for long-term lung damage.

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