What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is a long-term condition where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened, leading to a build-up of excess mucus that can make the lungs more vulnerable to infection.
The most common symptoms of bronchiectasis include:
- a persistent cough that usually brings up phlegm (sputum)
The severity of symptoms can vary widely. Some people have only a few symptoms that don't appear often, while others have wide-ranging symptoms that occur daily.
The symptoms tend to get worse if you develop an infection in your lungs.
Read more about the symptoms of bronchiectasis.
When to see your doctor
You should see your doctor if you develop a persistent cough. While this may not necessarily be the result of bronchiectasis, it will require further investigation.
If your doctor suspects you may have bronchiectasis, they will refer you to a specialist in treating lung conditions (a respiratory consultant) for further tests.
Read more about diagnosing bronchiectasis.
How the lungs are affected
The lungs are full of tiny branching airways, known as bronchi. Oxygen travels through these airways, ends up in tiny sacs called alveoli, and from there is absorbed into the bloodstream.
The inside walls of the bronchi are coated with sticky mucus, which protects against damage from particles moving down into the lungs.
In bronchiectasis, one or more of the bronchi are abnormally widened. This means more mucus than usual gathers there, which makes the bronchi more vulnerable to infection. If an infection does develop, the bronchi may be damaged again so that even more mucus gathers in them and the risk of infection increases further.
Over time, this cycle can cause gradually worsening damage to the lungs.
Why bronchiectasis happens
Bronchiectasis can develop if the tissue and muscles that surround the bronchi are damaged or destroyed.
There are number of reasons why this may happen. The three most common causes in the UK are:
- a lung infection during childhood, such as pneumonia or whooping cough, that damages the bronchi
- underlying problems with the immune system (the body’s defence against infection) that make the bronchi more vulnerable to damage from an infection
- allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) – an allergy to a certain type of fungi that can cause the bronchi to become inflamed if spores from the fungi are inhaled
However, in over half of all cases of bronchiectasis no obvious cause for the condition can be found.
Read more about the causes of bronchiectasis.
Who is affected by bronchiectasis?
It can affect anyone at any age, but symptoms don't usually develop until middle age.
How bronchiectasis is treated
The damage caused to the lungs by bronchiectasis is permanent, but treatment can help relieve your symptoms and stop the damage getting worse.
The main treatments include:
- exercises and special devices to help you clear mucus out of your lungs
- medication to help improve airflow within the lungs
- antibiotics to treat any lung infections that develop
Surgery is usually only considered for bronchiectasis in rare cases where other treatments have been ineffective, the damage to your bronchi is confined to a small area and you are in good general health.
Read more about the treatment of bronchiectasis.
Complications of bronchiectasis are rare but when they do occur they can be serious. One of the most serious complications is coughing up large amounts of blood due to one of the blood vessels in the lungs splitting. This problem can be life-threatening and may require emergency surgery to treat it.
Read more about the complications of bronchiectasis.
The outlook for people with bronchiectasis is highly variable and often depends on the underlying cause.
Living with bronchiectasis can be stressful and frustrating, but most people with the condition will have a normal life expectancy. In people with very severe symptoms, however, bronchiectasis can be fatal if the lungs stop working properly.
Lungs are a pair of organs in the chest that control breathing. They remove carbon dioxide from the blood and replace it with oxygen.
Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live in the body. Some can cause illness and disease and some others are good for you.
The most common symptom of bronchiectasis is a persistent cough, which affects around 9 out of 10 people with the condition.
Three out of four people with bronchiectasis regularly cough up large amounts of phlegm (sputum), which can be clear, pale yellow or yellow-greenish in colour. Other people may only occasionally cough up small amounts phlegm, or none at all.
Other symptoms include:
Signs of a lung infection
If you develop a lung infection then your symptoms will usually get worse within a few days. This is known as an infective exacerbation and it can cause:
- coughing up even more phlegm, which may be more green than usual or smell unpleasant
- worsening shortness of breath
You may also:
- feel very tired
- cough up blood, if you had not already done so
- experience a sharp chest pain that is made worse when breathing (pleurisy)
- feel generally unwell
When to seek medical advice
If you haven't previously been diagnosed with bronchiectasis and you develop a persistent cough, visit your doctor for advice.
While persistent coughing may not necessarily be the result of bronchiectasis, it will require further investigation.
If you have been previously diagnosed with bronchiectasis and you begin to experience symptoms that suggest you have a lung infection, contact your doctor.
This is because it's likely you will need treatment with antibiotics (although some people with bronchiectasis are given a stock of antibiotics as a precaution in case they suddenly develop a lung infection).
When to seek immediate medical advice
Some people with bronchiectasis develop a severe lung infection that may need to be treated in hospital.
Signs and symptoms of serious lung infection include:
- a bluish tinge to the skin and lips (cyanosis)
- a high temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
- rapid breathing (more than 25 breaths a minute)
- severe chest pain that makes it too painful to cough and clear your lungs
If you experience any of the above, phone the healthcare professional in charge of your care for advice immediately. This may be your doctor, a doctor who specialises in lung conditions (pulmonologist) or a specialist nurse.
In bronchiectasis, the airways of the lungs become damaged and widened due to inflammation.
Your lungs are continually exposed to germs, so your body has sophisticated defence mechanisms designed to keep the lungs free of infection.
If a foreign substance (such as bacteria or a virus) gets past these defences, your immune system will attempt to stop the spread of any infection by sending white blood cells to the location of infection. These cells release chemicals to fight the infection, which can cause the surrounding tissue to become inflamed.
For most people, this inflammation will pass without causing any further problems. However, bronchiectasis can occur if the inflammation permanently destroys the elastic-like tissue and muscles surrounding the bronchi (airways), causing them to widen.
The abnormal bronchi then become filled with excess mucus, which can trigger persistent coughing and make the lungs more vulnerable to infection. If the lungs do become infected again, this can result in further inflammation and further widening of the bronchi.
As this cycle is repeated, the damage to the lungs gets progressively worse. How quickly bronchiectasis progresses can vary significantly. For some people the condition will get worse quickly, but for many the progression is slow.
In around half of all cases of bronchiectasis, no obvious cause can be found.
Some of the more common triggers that have been identified are described below.
Around a third of cases of bronchiectasis in adults are associated with a severe lung infection in childhood, such as:
However, as there are now vaccinations available for these infections, it is expected that childhood infections will become a less common cause of bronchiectasis in the future.
Around 1 in 12 cases of bronchiectasis occur because a person has a weakened immune system, which makes their lungs more vulnerable to tissue damage. The medical term for having a weakened immune system is immunodeficiency.
Some people are born with an immunodeficiency due to problems with the genes they inherit from their parents. It is also possible to acquire an immunodeficiency due to an infection such as HIV.
Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA)
Around 1 in 14 people with bronchiectasis develop the condition as a complication of an allergic condition known as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA).
People with ABPA have an allergy to a type of fungi known as aspergillus, which is found in a wide range of different environments across the world.
If a person with ABPA breathes in fungal spores, it can trigger an allergic reaction and persistent inflammation, which in turn can progress to bronchiectasis.
Aspiration is the medical term for stomach contents accidentally passing into your lungs rather than down into your gastrointestinal tract. This is responsible for around 1 in 25 cases of bronchiectasis.
The lungs are very sensitive to the presence of foreign objects, such as small samples of food or even stomach acids, so this can trigger inflammation leading to bronchiectasis.
Cystic fibrosis is a relatively common genetic disorder where the lungs become clogged up with mucus. The mucus then provides an ideal environment for a bacterial infection to take place, leading to the symptoms of bronchiectasis.
It is estimated that cystic fibrosis is responsible for around 1 in 33 cases of bronchiectasis.
Cilia are the tiny, hair-like structures that line the airways in the lungs. They are designed to protect the airways and help move away any excess mucus. Bronchiectasis can develop if there is a problem with the cilia that means they are unable to effectively clear mucus from the airways.
Conditions that can cause problems with the cilia include:
- Young's disease – a rare condition only affecting males that is thought to be caused by exposure to mercury in childhood
- primary ciliary dyskinesia – a rare condition caused by inheriting faulty genes
It's estimated that about 1 in every 33 cases of bronchiectasis are due to Young's disease and 1 or 2 in every 100 cases are due to primary ciliary dyskinesia.
However, as the regulations regarding the use of mercury are now much stricter than they were in the past, it is expected that Young’s syndrome will become a much less common cause of bronchiectasis in the future.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common condition in which the immune system goes wrong and starts attacking healthy tissue, causing inflammation that in most cases is confined to the joints. However, in a small number of cases the inflammation can spread to the lungs, triggering the symptoms of bronchiectasis.
It is estimated that rheumatoid arthritis is responsible for around 1 in 33 cases of bronchiectasis.
You should see your doctor for advice if you develop a persistent cough so they can look for a possible cause.
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, such as how often you cough, whether you bring up any phlegm (sputum) and whether you smoke.
They may also listen to your lungs with a stethoscope as you breathe in and out (the lungs of people with bronchiectasis often make a distinctive crackling noise as a person breaths in and out).
If your doctor thinks you may have a lung infection, they may take a sample of your phlegm so it can be checked for bacteria.
Referral to a specialist
If your doctor suspects that you could have bronchiectasis, you will be referred to a doctor who specialises in treating lung conditions (a respiratory consultant) for further testing.
Some of the tests a respiratory consultant may carry out to help diagnose bronchiectasis are described below.
Currently the most effective test available to diagnose bronchiectasis is called a high resolution computerised tomography (HRCT) scan.
A HRCT scan involves taking several X-rays of your chest at slightly different angles, a computer is then used to put all the images together. This produces a very detailed picture of the inside of your body and the airways inside your lungs (the bronchi) should show up very clearly.
In a healthy pair of lungs the bronchi should become narrower the further they spread into your lungs, in the same way that a tree branch will then separate into narrower branches and then twigs.
If the scan shows that a section of airways is actually getting wider, this usually confirms that you have bronchiectasis.
Other tests can be used to assess the state of your lungs and to try to determine what the underlying cause of your bronchiectasis may be.
These tests may include:
- blood tests – which can be used to check how well your immune system is working and check for infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi
- a sample of your sweat can be tested to see how much salt is in it – high levels of salt can be caused by cystic fibrosis (if this test is positive then a more detailed genetic test can be carried out; see diagnosing cystic fibrosis for more information)
- lung function test – a small, hand-held device (spirometer) that you blow into is used to measure how hard and how quickly you can expel air from your lungs; this can assess how well your lungs are working
- bronchoscopy – a flexible tube with a camera at one end is used to look into your lungs; this test is usually only required if it is suspected that you could have inhaled a foreign object
The damage to the lungs associated with bronchiectasis is permanent, but treatment can help prevent the condition getting worse.
In most cases, treatment will involve a combination of medication, exercises you can learn and devices to help clear your airways. Surgery for bronchiectasis is rare.
There are a range of exercises, known as airway clearance techniques, which can help remove mucus from your lungs. This can often help improve coughing and breathlessness in people with bronchiectasis.
You can be referred to a physiotherapist who can teach you these techniques.
Active cycle of breathing techniques (ACBT)
The most widely used technique in the UK is called active cycle of breathing techniques (ACBT).
ACBT involve you repeating a cycle made up of a number of different steps. These include a period of normal breathing, followed by deep breaths to loosen the mucus and force it up; then you cough the mucus out. The cycle is then repeated for 20 to 30 minutes.
Don't attempt ACBT if you have not first been taught the steps by a suitably trained physiotherapist, as performing the techniques incorrectly could damage your lungs.
If you are otherwise in good health you will probably only need to perform ACBT once or twice a day. If you develop a lung infection you may need to perform ACBT on a more frequent basis.
Changing your position can also make it easier to remove mucus from your lungs. This is known as postural drainage.
Each technique can involve several complex steps, but most techniques involve you leaning or lying down while the physiotherapist or a carer uses their hands to vibrate certain sections of your lungs as you go through a series of "huffing" and coughing.
There are also a number of different handheld devices that can help remove mucus from your lungs.
Although these devices look different, most work in a similar way. Generally, they use a combination of vibrations and air pressure to make it easier to cough out any mucus.
Examples of these devices include the flutter, the RC cornet and the Acapella.
In some cases, medications to make breathing or clearing your lungs easier may be prescribed. These are discussed below.
Occasionally, medication inhaled through a device called a nebuliser may be recommended to help make it easier for you to clear your lungs.
Nebulisers are devices consisting of a face mask or mouthpiece, a chamber to convert the medication into a fine mist and a compressor to pump the medication into your lungs.
A number of different medications can be administered using a nebuliser, including salt water solutions. These medications help to reduce the thickness of your phlegm so it's easier to cough it out. Nebulisers can also be used to administer antibiotics if necessary (see below).
However, while the medications used with a nebuliser can be provided.
If you have a particularly severe flare-up of symptoms, you may be prescribed bronchodilator medications on a short-term basis.
Bronchodilators are inhaled medications that help make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in the lungs. Examples of this type of medication include beta2-adrenergic agonist, anticholinergics and theophylline.
If you experience a worsening of symptoms because of a bacterial infection (known as an infective exacerbation) then you will need to be treated with antibiotics.
A sample of phlegm will be taken to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection, although you will be initially treated with an antibiotic known to be effective against a number of different bacteria (a broad spectrum antibiotic) because it can take a few days to get the test results.
Depending on the test results, you may be prescribed a different antibiotic, or in some cases, a combination of antibiotics known to be effective against the specific bacteria causing the infection.
If you are well enough to be treated at home you will probably be prescribed two to three antibiotic tablets a day for 10-14 days. It is important to finish the course even if you feel better as stopping the course prematurely could cause the infection to recur quickly.
If your symptoms are more severe (see symptoms of bronchiectasis for a detailed description) then you may need to be admitted to hospital and treated with antibiotic injections.
If you have three or more infective exacerbations in any one year or your symptoms during an infective exacerbation were particularly severe, it may be recommended that you take antibiotics on a long-term basis. This can help prevent further infections and give your lungs the chance to recover.
This could involve taking low-dose antibiotic tablets to minimise the risk of side effects, or using an antibiotic nebuliser (see above for more information about nebulisers).
Using antibiotics in this way does increase the risk that one or more types of bacteria will develop a resistance to the antibiotic. Therefore, you may be asked to give regular phlegm samples to check for any resistance. If bacteria do show signs of developing a resistance then your antibiotic may need to be changed.
Surgery is usually only recommended where bronchiectasis is only affecting a single section of your lung, your symptoms aren't responding to other treatment and you don't have an underlying condition that could cause bronchiectasis to recur.
The lungs are made up of sections known as lobes – the left lung has two lobes and the right lung has three lobes. Surgery for focal bronchiectasis would usually involve removing the lobe affected by the bronchiectasis in a type of operation known as a lobectomy.
Surgery will not be used if more than one lobe is affected as it’s too dangerous to remove so much lung tissue.
In some cases, people with bronchiectasis can develop serious complications that require emergency treatment.
Coughing up large amounts of blood
A rare but serious complication of bronchiectasis is coughing up large amount of blood (the medical term for this is massive haemoptysis). This can occur when a section of one of the blood vessels supplying the lungs suddenly splits open.
Symptoms that may indicate massive haemoptysis include:
- coughing up more than 100ml of blood in a 24-hour period – 100ml is roughly equivalent to a third of a can of drink
- breathing difficulties – caused by blood obstructing your airways
- feeling lightheaded, dizzy and having cold clammy skin – caused by rapid blood loss
Massive haemoptysis is a medical emergency. If you suspect that you or someone in your care is experiencing massive haemoptysis then call for an ambulance immeiately.
A person with massive haemoptysis will need to be admitted to hospital and a tube may need to be placed into their throat to assist them with their breathing.
A procedure called a bronchial artery embolisation (BAE), carried out by specialist radiology doctors, will then be required to stop the bleeding. During a BAE a special dye is injected into your arteries so that they show up clearly on X-rays.
Then, using X-ray scans as a guide, the source of the bleeding is located and injected with tiny particles, around the size of a grain of sand, that will help clog the vessel up and stop the bleeding.