Asthma is a common respiratory condition where irritants trigger the airways to become inflamed and narrowed, which makes breathing difficult. During attacks, individuals may notice wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and/or shortness of breath. It is important to know how to correctly manage and prevent asthma attacks.…
What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is a chronic disease of the lungs. It is caused by repeated damage to the airways of the lungs (bronchi), often as a result of lung infections.
The risk of bronchiectasis increases with age and is twice as common in women as in men. In children, however, boys are more at risk than girls.
Bronchiectasis is the result of a cycle of infection and inflammation. Repeated lung infections cause episodes of inflammation in the lung airways (bronchi). These gradually cause damage and as damage builds up, the airways become wide and riddled with scar tissue.
Many organs and tissues of our body have glands that secrete mucus. This watery substance forms layers that keep the linings of our internal organs moist; it also helps trap and remove harmful foreign substances and microbes.
Mucus is always found inside the airways of the lung, and is cleared away by the movement of cilia - microscopic hairs on the cells that line the airways. When these cells are damaged by inflammation and scarring, mucus is not cleared away fast enough and starts accumulating inside the airways.
This mucus layer provides good breeding grounds for infecting bacteria or fungi. Thus, a new cycle of infection and inflammation starts, which makes the situation worse.
- Bacterial and fungal infections;
- A history of childhood infections;
- Airway obstruction - an inhaled foreign object (often in childhood), or another type of mass blocking an airway in the lungs;
- Inhaled toxic fumes or smoke;
- Cystic fibrosis - this causes about a third of all cases of bronchiectasis;
- Primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD) - a condition in which the cilia function poorly;
- Allergic broncho-pulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) - an allergy to the common fungus Aspergillus fumigatus;
- A weak immune system;
- Autoimmune conditions, including Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or Sjögren's syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), lupus, and;
- Congenital bronchiectasis - a few newborns are born with bronchiectasis. This is thought to be a result of a problem with fetal development of the lungs.
Signs and symptoms
- Persistent cough, often with phlegm, lasting for months or years;
- Coughing up blood;
- Shortness of breath, wheezing;
- Chest pain;
- Pale or bluish skin color;
- Clubbing of fingers;
- Weight loss;
- Chronic bad breath, and;
- Feeling unwell.
Methods for diagnosis
- Examining your chest with a stethoscope;
- Chest imaging, such as X-ray and high-resolution computed tomography (HRCT). HRCT is the ideal test for diagnosing bronchiectasis, and;
- Lung function tests.
After diagnosing bronchiectasis, your doctor may do further tests to find out its cause. These tests may include:
- Blood tests and sputum culture test - to test for infecting microorganisms, and;
- Testing for cystic fibrosis.
Types of treatment
Treatment of bronchiectasis focuses on clearing the excess mucus from the airways and treating the underlying cause of the condition:
There are several therapy techniques that can help to physically clear the lungs and airways of mucus. This is done on a regular basis, usually once a day.
The treatment generally involves a carer or health professional thumping the chest area in a variety of ways and postures. Breathing exercises are also used, as well as devices that use vibration and air compression to help dislodge and clear mucus from the airways.
This is a program of exercises and techniques that aims to reduce symptoms and help a person with lung problems to keep functioning in daily life   . Pulmonary rehabilitation exercises can include some or all of the following:
- Endurance exercise (walking or riding a stationary bicycle);
- Light weight training or other resistance exercises;
- Breathing exercises and techniques;
- Patient education - advice on how to manage your condition, and;
- Peer support sessions.
Exercise of any kind reduces inflammation, encourages air flow and helps loosen the mucus in the respiratory system and control its build-up. Exercise can also develop and maintain the joints and muscles of the chest and back, which help you to breathe.
Medication to treat respiratory problems in cystic fibrosis can be divided into five categories:
- Antibiotics that help fend off the infections that are causing bronchiectasis. The specific treatment given depends on the type of infection;
- Bronchodilators, such as inhaled salbutamol, which widen the airways and help with breathing;
- Mucus clearance agents, such as saline or mannitol, which help dilute the mucus and help move it out of the airways, and;
- Anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids, which can be given to reduce inflammation and swelling within the airways.
In serious cases of bronchiectasis, surgery to remove part of the lung may be recommended. Lung transplantation is also an option in extreme cases.
Complications of bronchiectasis can include:
Bronchiectasis cannot be cured, but it can be managed, allowing people with the condition to live a relatively normal life, especially if the condition is diagnosed and treated early on. However, bronchiectasis has been associated with increased mortality rates. 
In the past, bronchiectasis was more common, but many of the infections that led to it - such as whooping cough, measles, tuberculosis, and influenza - are much less common now due to routine vaccination programs.
- McDonnell, M.J., Ward, C., Lordan, J.L., et al. (2013) Non-cystic fibrosis bronchiectasis. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 106:709–715.
- Boyton, R.J. (2012) Bronchiectasis. Medicine 40:267–272.
- Barker, A.F. (2002) Bronchiectasis. New England Journal of Medicine 346:1383–1393.
- Murtagh, J., MD. (2011) John Murtagh’s General Practice (5th Revised edition edition.). North Ryde, N.S.W.: McGraw-Hill Medical Publishing.
- Holland, A.E. and Swigris, J.J. (2014) The role of pulmonary rehabilitation and supplemental oxygen therapy in the treatment of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In K. C. Meyer and S. D. Nathan (eds.), Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Humana Press.
- Loebinger, M.R., Wells, A.U., Hansell, D.M., et al. (2009) Mortality in bronchiectasis: a long-term study assessing the factors influencing survival. European Respiratory Journal 34:843–849.
FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is a chronic lung disease caused by repeated damage to the walls of the airways of the lungs (bronchi), often as a result of infections.
What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?
Signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis include: a persistent cough, often with phlegm, often lasting for months or years; coughing up blood; shortness of breath, wheezing; fatigue, being easily exhausted; chest pain; pale or bluish skin color; …
What causes bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is the result of a cycle of infections and inflammation that causes the airways of the lungs to become scarred and widen.
How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose bronchiectasis based on your symptoms, followed by further tests including examining your chest with a stethoscope, chest imaging such as X-ray imaging, high-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) and lung function tests. HRCT is …
How is bronchiectasis treated?
Bronchiectasis is treated with a combination of physical exercises and techniques designed to remove excess mucus from the airways and restore and maintain lung function, and medications that fight infection and inflammation and help dilate the airways and …
Can bronchiectasis be cured?
Bronchiectasis cannot be cured, but it can be managed, allowing people with the condition to live a relatively normal life, especially if the condition is diagnosed and treated early on. However, bronchiectasis has been associated with increased mortality rates.
Will bronchiectasis clear up on its own?
Bronchiectasis will not go away on its own; it requires treatment.
Can bronchiectasis be prevented?
Prevention of bronchiectasis focuses on preventing the recurring lung infections that lead to it. Vaccinations, avoiding infection, or treating infection promptly when it occurs, are all helpful. In the past, bronchiectasis was more common, but many of the …
What are the complications of bronchiectasis?
Complications of bronchiectasis can include chronic pneumonia, collapsed lung, respiratory failure and heart failure.