- Bronchiectasis is a condition in which the airways in the lungs are damaged, causing them to become permanently widened.
- Bronchiectasis is usually caused by long-term lung infections. Cystic fibrosis, severe pneumonia, whooping cough, tuberculosis and fungal lung infections can all cause bronchiectasis.
- The most common symptom of bronchiectasisis is an ongoing cough with sputum.
- To help diagnose bronchiectasis, your doctor may send you for a variety of tests including blood tests, sputum tests, lung function tests, a chest x-ray and a high-resolution CT scan.
- Treatment of bronchiectasis may include antibiotics, inhalers, chest physiotherapy and routine vaccinations.
What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is a condition in which the airways in the lungs are damaged, causing them to become permanently widened.
What causes bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is usually caused by a long-term lung infection. Damage to the airways prevents them from clearing mucus. Mucus is naturally produced by your airway to help remove dust and other small particles.
The mucus build-up in the airways can become infected, which can cause your airways to be blocked and lead to repeated lung infections.
Examples of lung infections that can lead to bronchiectasis include:
- whooping cough
- severe pneumonia
- fungal infections
Other causes of bronchiectasis can include:
- cystic fibrosis — a disease that can cause thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs
- autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease
- allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA), an allergic reaction to a fungus called aspergillus
Sometimes, an obvious cause can’t be found.
What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?
The most common symptom is an ongoing cough with sputum (mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from your airways).
Other symptoms may include:
- shortness of breath or wheezing
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Breathing problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
How will I be diagnosed with bronchiectasis?
Your doctor will ask you about the symptoms and your overall health. They may examine you, including listening to your breathing with a stethoscope.
You may need imaging tests such as a chest x-ray or high resolution CT scan so your doctor can look in detail at your lung tissue and airways. You may be asked to provide a sample of your sputum to test for bacteria or fungi.
Other tests may include:
- blood tests to check for infections or other possible causes of your condition
- breathing tests (lung function tests) to check how well your lungs are working
What treatment will I need for bronchiectasis?
Although there is currently no cure for bronchiectasis, early treatment is important to control infections, relieve symptoms and prevent further lung damage.
Medicines may include:
- antibiotics to treat infection
- bronchodilators — medicines that help open up the airways. making breathing easier
- inhaled corticosteroids to reduce inflammation (swelling)
- medicines to help loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough up
A physiotherapist may prescribe a daily program to help clear the airways of sputum. This may include physical exercises, breathing exercises, coughing exercises and moving into positions that make it easier to drain sputum.
If you smoke, try to quit. Ask your doctor for support and advice about quitting smoking. You can also call Quitline 13 78 48 for help to stop smoking.
Other things you can do include:
- getting recommended vaccinations for influenza and pneumococcal disease to reduce your risk of infections
- taking care of your overall health by living a healthy lifestyle
- having regular follow-ups with health professionals
When should I seek more help?
It is important that you learn to manage your condition, including what to do when your condition worsens. Seek medical help immediately if you become unwell. Delayed treatment may result in more severe illness and a longer recovery time.
See your GP if you have an ongoing cough to get it checked out.
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Resources and support
For more information on bronchiectasis and general lung health, or if you need support, visit Lung Foundation Australia.
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Last reviewed: September 2022