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What is bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis is a long-term lung condition that occurs when the airways to the lungs become inflamed. These airways are the series of branching tubes known as bronchi, or bronchial tubes. They contain glands that produce mucus to keep the tubes moist and also to help trap dust and germs when you breathe in. Tiny hairs, known as cilia, line the tubes and they normally move the mucus away.

However, if the tubes are damaged, the mucus cannot be cleared away and it builds up, increasing the likelihood that the tubes will become inflamed and infected by bacteria, causing bronchiectasis. The inflammation can cause damage to the tissue and muscles that surround the affected bronchial tubes, leading to the tubes becoming wider and even more susceptible to filling up with mucus, resulting in a cycle where the condition often gets worse over time.

What causes bronchiectasis?

There are a number of factors that can cause bronchiectasis:

  • Scarring, caused when damaged bronchial tubes heal themselves - a childhood infection such as measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis or severe pneumonia can cause scarring.
  • Lack of immunity to infection, such as having no antibodies to a viral infection - 1 in 12 cases of bronchiectasis occurs in a person with an immunodeficiency, or weakened immune system.
  • An underlying genetic disease - one example is cystic fibrosis, where the mucus in the bronchial tubes is too thick. Another example is primary ciliary dyskinesia, where the hairs lining the tubes do not function properly.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s immune system for some unknown reason attacks their own body. In some cases the inflammation associated with the disease spreads to the lungs.
  • Bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA), an allergy to a certain type of fungi, which occurs in about 1 in 14 people with bronchiectasis.
  • Blockage of the bronchial tubes caused by swallowing food such as peanuts the wrong way, known as aspiration.

In more than half the people in the UK with bronchiectasis, there is no obvious cause for the condition.

How often does bronchiectasis occur?

Although it is relatively rare, the condition can occur at any age, with about 1 in 1,000 adults and 1 in 10,000 children in the UK having bronchiectasis. More women than men have bronchiectasis.

What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?

The symptoms can vary, with some people having few or no symptoms at all, though they can be severe in others. The most common symptoms are:

Contracting a lung infection will make the symptoms worse and you may notice a foul smell in the phlegm.

WebMD Medical Reference

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