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Bronchiectasis - Topic Overview

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.

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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 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.

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