In terms of lung diseases, we are familiar with conditions like pneumonia, asthma, and bronchitis. However, we seldom hear about bronchiectasis, a condition that makes the patient experience recurrent respiratory infections and coughing up sputum. In this article, we will delve deeper into the warning signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis.
An Overview of the Lungs
Before we can fully understand the signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis, we must first know the basics of lung anatomy.
Our lungs, the major organs for respiration, work hard to take in oxygen, and release carbon dioxide through a process called gas exchange.
- Once we take in the air, either through our nose or mouth, it will pass through the pharynx or throat, then to the trachea or windpipe.
- From the windpipe, the air will go through the main stem or primary bronchi. We have two bronchi – one goes to the left lung and the other directs air to the right lung.
- These main stem or primary bronchi will branch out into smaller bronchi (secondary and tertiary). The bronchi are lined with sticky or slimy mucous which helps remove inhaled particles like dust and bacteria.
- Finally, the smaller bronchi will branch out into the tiniest air passages called bronchioles. These bronchioles will deliver the air to the alveoli (grape-like sacs) for the gas exchange.
What is Bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis happens when one or more of the bronchi in the lungs widen abnormally. This widening causes more mucus to stay in the bronchi and therefore makes them more prone to infection.
In the long run, bronchiectasis may also cause loss of the airway’s ability to move oxygen in and out of the lungs. This could be dangerous, as it interferes with the oxygen supply of vital organs.
Signs and Symptoms of Bronchiectasis
Coughing Up Sputum
One of the most common signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis is persistent coughing up of large amount of sputum or phlegm. The phlegm may vary in color; it could be pale or yellow, to a little greenish.
Although coughing up a lot of phlegm is common, some people may only cough up a little sputum; at times, others do not cough up sputum at all.
Coughing Up Blood
Although less common, coughing up blood is still one of the signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis. This happens when some of the vessels in the lungs bleed.
Commonly, the blood is mixed with phlegm and is accompanied by chest infection.
Problems in Breathing
Another one of the warning signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis is problems in breathing. This includes shortness of breath or “air hunger.”
Some people may also experience wheezing. Wheezing is a high-pitched, whistle-like sound when breathing.
It’s typically heard upon exhalation, but it can also happen during inhalation.
Chest and Joint Pain
The most common pain experienced by a person with bronchiectasis is chest pain. This results from persistent coughing and difficulty breathing. However, some may also experience joint pain.
This is a condition where the nails thicken and become round and “bulgy.” Furthermore, clubbing of nails is common to people who have heart conditions or those who experience lack of oxygen.
Because of the persistent coughing and shortness of breath, fatigue or tiredness is also one of the common signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis.
Loss of Weight
Due to difficulty of breathing and coughing, people with bronchiectasis need more energy. Along with the loss of appetite and fatigue, increased nutrient requirement can lead to weight loss.
Someone who suffers from bronchiectasis will also experience bladder leakage or urinary incontinence. This is not life-threatening, but it will surely have an impact on the patient’s activities. Urinary incontinence in this condition often happens when the patient coughs, hence the other term, cough incontinence.
Fever and Chills
If the patient with bronchiectasis develops a lung infection, he or she may develop a fever with chills.
Because of the accumulation of mucus, there could also be sinus problems like blocked sinus and sinus pain. Additionally, this may also lead to bad breath.
When to Seek for Immediate Medical Help
If you experience the following, go to the hospital right away.
- Rapid breathing (more than 25 counts per minute)
- Bluish discoloration of nails and lips; this indicates lack of oxygen
- Severe chest pain
- High fever
These are signs of severe lung infection and must be addressed by a healthcare provider immediately.
Management of the Signs and Symptoms of Bronchiectasis
Since it is a long-term condition, a person will continue to experience the signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis. Home management includes:
- Staying physically active
- Getting plenty of fluids to prevent mucous buildup
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Frequent hand washing to lower the risk of infection
- Vaccination against flu and pneumonia
Additionally, you also need to spot the signs of a flare-up. Flare-ups happen when the symptoms, especially breathing difficulty, become more severe than what’s normally experienced. The following are the signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis flare-ups:
- Fever and chills
- Night sweats
- Increased shortness of breath
If you experience flare-ups, you can do the following:
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Perform airway clearance exercises more frequently
- Take your prescribed medications
- Collect sputum sample and give it to your doctor
Prevention of Bronchiectasis
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent congenital bronchiectasis (the one you are born with). However, you can take some steps to prevent lung infections, which may cause this condition:
- Take vaccination against whooping cough and measles (for children)
- Seek immediate medical treatment if you suspect lung infection
- Be careful not to inhale substances like food particles and fluids. If children accidentally did so, seek immediate medical help.
- Protect your lungs from things that may irritate them, like chemical fumes, gas, and smoke.
- Get annual shot against pneumonia
The signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis are easily confused with the symptoms of other respiratory conditions. For instance, persistent coughing may be linked to diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. For this reason, you must consult your doctor if you notice the combination of symptoms discussed earlier.
Learn more about Respiratory Health here.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.