photo of man coughing

What is bronchiectasis?

When your airway walls thicken or enlarge, it’s called bronchiectasis. Here’s what you need to know…

Are you coughing up a lot of mucus – and sometimes blood – every day, to go along with other respiratory problems?

A closer look at your symptoms could reveal you have bronchiectasis – a chronic, rare disease in which the walls of the airways become thick or enlarged due to scarring from inflammation and repeat infections.

Who has bronchiectasis?

Approximately 110,000 people in the United States have been diagnosed with bronchiectasis. Most cases occur in people diagnosed with cystic fibrosis; people with asthma, COPD, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and primary immunodeficiency diseases are also at higher risk.

Bronchiectasis occurs mostly in people age 75 or older – but it can develop at any age – and it is more prevalent in women than men.

What are symptoms of bronchiectasis?

When airways are damaged, mucus builds up in the lungs and attracts bacteria and microbes. In time, this can lead to another infection and more inflammation – a harmful cycle resulting in flare-ups that may require hospitalization.

In some people, the cilia – tiny hairs in the airways that move mucus so it’s eventually coughed out of the body – are damaged and do not work properly. As a result, mucus builds up in the lungs and cannot be cleared out.

Symptoms include:
• Coughing up large amounts of mucus every day
• Coughing up blood or mucus mixed with blood
• Wheezing or whistling sound when breathing
• Shortness of breath and chest pain
• Fever and/or chills, especially during flares
• Fatigue, especially during flares

How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?

Bronchiectasis is diagnosed using blood tests, a chest scan or radiograph, lung function testing and/or bronchoscopy, in which a narrow, flexible tube with a light and camera is inserted into the airways to examine airways.

What is the treatment for bronchiectasis?

There is no cure for bronchiectasis. The goal of treatment is to address infections and inflammation.


Antibiotics are the first line of attack against infections. Macrolides, a type of antibiotic, may be prescribed to treat bacteria in the airways and also reduce inflammation. Mucolytics are a mucus-thinning medication.

Airway devices

Some patients may use a device to inhale air or a fine mist into the airways, helping to break up mucus.

Oxygen therapy

Some patients may need extra oxygen to improve their breathing and quality of life; many different types of devices are available, including portable units.


Bronchoscopy is recommended if there’s a blockage in the airway. The bronchoscope can examine and remove whatever is blocking the airway.


Stay well-hydrated to help loosen and clear mucus. Get immunized against the flu and pneumonia every year. Consider a pulmonary rehab program that includes exercise and nutrition to reduce flare-ups and improve quality of life.

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