Bronchiectasis causes the airways to slowly lose their ability to clear out mucus which in turn builds up, allowing bacteria to grow. It can cause coughing, abnormal chest sounds and chest pain. Bronchiectasis can be treated with medications, physical therapy or surgery if there is bleeding or if it is only in one part of the lung.

What is bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis occurs when the lungs’ airways are damaged causing them to widen and become flabby and scarred. It can affect just one section of the lung or many sections of both lungs.

It prevents the airways from clearing mucus, which is a slimy substance that the airways produce to help clear inhaled dust, bacteria and other small particles. When the lungs can’t clear the mucus, the mucus builds up allowing bacteria to grow and causing inflammation. The bacteria causes serious lung infections that cause more damage to the airways. The damage can prevent the airways from moving air in and out.

Although bronchiectasis can develop at any age, it most often occurs at childhood. When bronchiectasis occurs, the symptoms may not appear until years of repeated infections.

It can cause various symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Coughing, which can be worse when lying down
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abnormal chest sounds
  • Daily production of large amounts of coughed up mucus
  • Chest pain
  • Clubbing, which is flesh under the fingernails and toenails that get thicker
  • Respiratory failure in severe cases

What causes bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis is caused by an injury to the airway walls. It can be caused by an infection such as pneumonia or whooping cough. There are some underlying conditions that can damage the airways and lead to bronchiectasis such as cystic fibrosis. It can also be caused by an airway blockage such as a noncancerous tumor or inhaled object.

What treatments exist for bronchiectasis?

While there is no cure for bronchiectasis, there are ways it can be treated to relieve symptoms. Diagnosing and treating it early is important to help prevent further lung damage.

The goals of treatment are to treat any underlying conditions and lung infections, remove mucus and prevent further damage. Treatment plans can include medicines, physical therapy, oxygen therapy or surgery.

Medicines such as antibiotics or mucus-thinning medications can help bronchiectasis. Antibiotics can get rid of the infection caused by the mucus. Mucus-thinning medications can help loosen the mucus in the lungs making the mucus easier to cough up.

Physical therapy can teach patients how to loosen the mucus from their lungs. Oxygen therapy can help raise low blood oxygen levels. If no other treatments have helped or if only one part of the airway is affected, surgery may be necessary or a lung transplant may be needed.

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