Bronchiectasis is a chronic respiratory condition characterised by the irreversible widening and scarring of the bronchi, leading to recurrent infections and a decline in lung function. While relatively rare, bronchiectasis can be a debilitating condition that severely impacts a patient’s quality of life. It is important to recognise the signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis, as early diagnosis and appropriate management can significantly improve patient outcomes. In this article, we will discuss the causes, clinical presentation, diagnostic criteria, and treatment options for bronchiectasis, providing you with the tools necessary to effectively diagnose and manage this challenging respiratory condition.
- What is bronchiectasis?
- What are some key clinical features of bronchiectasis?
- Example Case
- Important differential diagnoses to consider in a patient with clubbing, coarse crepitations and cough
- Key investigations
- Distribution by cause
- Common pathogens implicated in bronchiectasis
What is bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis is a clinical syndrome comprised of:
- Abnormal and increased production of mucopurulent sputum from bronchial walls;
- Abnormal bronchial wall dilatation (of proximal and medium-sized bronchi), irreversible bronchial wall destruction and transmural inflammation which is demonstrable radiologically.
The consequence of these pathological changes is:
- Impaired clearance of secretions;
- Bacterial colonisation of secretions; and
- Clinical presentation with recurrent infection and lung damage
What are some key clinical features of bronchiectasis?
- Productive cough with copious sputum production
- Coarse crepitations (inspiratory and expiratory) – distribution related to causes of bronchiectasis and altering with cough
- Peripheral signs of inflammatory disease e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus
- Nicotine staining (30% of patients with COPD have bronchiectasis)
- Signs of pulmonary hypertension – right ventricular heave, raised JVP, peripheral oedema
- Lymphadenopathy – present in sarcoidosis and tuberculosis, but also cancer
A 22-year old boy has a history of recurrent chest infections. He had problems with a productive cough early in his life. Over the past few years, he has been considered to be quite a “chesty child” and often spent 4-5 weeks away from university in hospital.
On multiple occasions, Haemophilus influenzae was grown on sputum culture. During his last admission, culture grew Pseudomonas sp. There is no family history of respiratory problems. He has no other symptoms aside from an irregular bowel habit. On examination, he has coarse crepitations over the upper zones of his lungs and has a low BMI.
What would be your suspected diagnosis, and what investigations would you perform to confirm this?
In a patient with clinico-radiological features of bronchiectasis, one should obtain a careful history to elicit the potential underlying cause of bronchiectasis.
The likely cause will alter depending on the age that the patient presents.
This may have already been established, but if not:
- Childhood respiratory infection – measles, pertussis and TB
- Genetic muco-ciliary clearance defects – cystic fibrosis, Kartagener’s syndrome, Young syndrome, immotile cilia syndrome
- Immunodeficiency – congenital and acquired hypogammaglobulinemia, AIDS
- Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis (exposure to fungal mold)
- Autoimmune disease – rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Bronchial obstruction – Foreign body, chronic aspiration (e.g. patients with alcohol dependence syndrome, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease), endobronchial tumour, lymphadenopathy (tuberculosis/sarcoidosis/malignancy), granulomatous diseases
- Congenital anatomical defects – Yellow Nail syndrome,Swyer-James syndrome, William-Campbell syndrome
Important differential diagnoses to consider in a patient with clubbing, coarse crepitations and cough
- Lung abscess
- Pulmonary fibrosis
Distribution by cause
- Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis -> upper lobes involving central bronchi
- Tuberculosis/fungal infection -> upper lobes
- Bronchial obstruction/recurrent aspiration -> right middle lobe
- Infection -> Lower lobes, right middle lobe and lingula
Common pathogens implicated in bronchiectasis
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Haemophilus influenzae
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa
- Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Klebsiella pneumoniae
- Aspergillus sp.
- Note that non-tuberculous mycobacteria and Burkholderia cenocapacia are associated with poor prognosis, and in some transplant centres Burkholderia sp. may be an absolute contraindication to transplantation
- Massive haemoptysis
- Frequent hospital admissions
- Collapsed lung
- Respiratory failure
- Pulmonary hypertension
Treatment of this condition is multidisciplinary, and involves a specialist respiratory physician, specialist nurses, physiotherapists and dietitians.
The goals of treatment include rapid treatment and prevention of infections, optimum bronchial clearance and optimum quality-of-life for the patient.
T Hill A, L Sullivan A, D Chalmers J, et al British Thoracic Society Guideline for bronchiectasis in adults Thorax 2019;74:1-69.
Written by Dr Anahita Sharma (IMT3)
Reviewed by Dr. Ashraf Elgaali (ST7 Respiratory Medicine)
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