Bronchiectasis Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Bronchiectasis is when the airway walls thicken or enlarge due to chronic inflammation and recurring lung infections. Bronchiectasis damages the airways, which makes it hard for mucus to leave the body. As a result, mucus builds up in the lungs, attracting bacteria and microbes that lead to infection. Recurring infections lead to chronic inflammation, and more mucus buildup. Chronic inflammation causes additional thickening and widening of the airways.

What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?

Symptoms of bronchiectasis can take months or even years to develop. Some typical symptoms include:

  • chronic daily cough
  • coughing up blood
  • abnormal sounds or wheezing in the chest with breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing up large amounts of thick mucus every day
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • change in the structure of fingernails and toenails, known as clubbing
  • frequent respiratory infections

Diagnosing bronchiectasis

If your physician thinks you have bronchiectasis, some tests will be arranged for you.

Tests your physician may organize include:

  • A chest x-ray to exclude any other conditions
  • A sputum sample to see if it contains any bacteria
  • Blood tests to look for possible causes of bronchiectasis

Depending on your test results, you may be referred to a pulmonologist, who may arrange additional tests including:

  • A high resolution computed tomography (HRCT) scan – this is a special type of x-ray that uses computers to make detailed images of your airways to show if they are widened. This scan can confirm a diagnosis of bronchiectasis.
  • Lung function tests to see how well your lungs are working
  • Various other tests to look for a possible cause of your bronchiectasis
Bronchiectasis HRCT scan

Treatment options for bronchiectasis

There’s no cure for bronchiectasis, but treatment is important to help manage the vicious cycle of bronchiectasis. The main goal of treatment is to keep infections and bronchial secretions under control. It’s also critical to prevent further obstructions of the airways and minimize lung damage. Common methods of treating bronchiectasis include:

  • methods for clearing the airways (like breathing exercises and chest physiotherapy)
  • antibiotics to prevent and treat infection
  • bronchodilators
  • mucus thinning medications
  • expectorants to aid in coughing up mucus
  • oxygen therapy