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What Is Bronchiectasis?

People with bronchiectasis often experience chronic coughing.
The bronchioles, or airways, in the lungs are shown in red.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 March 2014
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Bronchiectasis is a type of obstructive pulmonary disease characterized by a permanent widening of the respiratory passages. People with this condition can experience fatigue, difficulty breathing, and chronic coughing. While the process of the disease cannot be reversed, there are ways to manage bronchiectasis and to prevent the condition from growing any worse. In severe cases where the damage is extreme, the recommendation may be a lung transplant.

This condition can be the result of a congenital abnormality like cystic fibrosis, or it can be acquired, as in the case of people who experience chronic lung infections. Bronchiectasis is caused by a buildup of mucus in the bronchial tubes, which causes the tubes to widen and weaken. The cilia which line the tubes are unable to push the mucus out, allowing it to accumulate. As a result, the tubes can be obstructed with mucus which makes it hard to breathe and bacteria can flourish, causing lung infections.

The patient may have an unproductive cough as he or she tries to cough up the sputum building up in the bronchial tubes and the lungs. It is also typical to hear abnormal chest sounds when a stethoscope is used by a doctor to listen to the patient's heart and lungs. The shortness of breath can be accompanied by a bubbling or whistling sound, which can lead a doctor to erroneously conclude that the patient has asthma, bronchitis, or a similar condition.

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There are three types of bronchiectasis, in order of severity from least to worse: cylindrical, varicose, and cystic. This condition is usually diagnosed after a doctor takes a patient history, listens to the patient's lungs, and orders medical imaging studies such as CT scans to look at the lungs and the associated bronchial tubes. Some red flags that a patient may have bronchiectasis include a history of tuberculosis or other lung infections, and congenital disorders which involve the lungs.

When the condition is identified, the patient may be given antibiotics or other drugs to kill the infectious agents living in the respiratory tract, and drugs may also be administered to cut down on mucus secretions. Physical therapy can also help the patient expel the mucus so that it will not be allowed to buildup and contribute to the emergence of a new infection. Bronchiectasis treatment requires a lifetime commitment to caring for the lungs and monitoring changes so that emerging conditions can be addressed as quickly as possible to prevent additional damage.

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