Clinical explanation of Bronchiectasis

Permanent dilatation and distortion of the bronchi is called bronchiectasis. What is it’s effect to human health?

Etiology and Pathogenesis:

Most of the cases of bronchiectasis result from acquired causes.

• Obstruction to the bronchus due to any cause leads to distal collapse of the pulmonary segment. The pull on the bronchi by the collapsed alveoli leads to dilatation of the bronchi. In the initial stages this is reversible and the bronchi regain their normal size when the lung expands. If the obstruction persists, accumulation of mucus occurs distally, infection supervenes and the bronchial wall is destroyed permanently.

This results in permanent dilatation. The infective organisms are streptococci, pneumococci, Klebsiella, and anaerobes.

• Bronchiectasis may follow several viral infections without passing through the obstructive phase.

• Congenital defects in the bronchial wall lead to bronchiectasis. The classical example is Kartagener’s syndrome, which is characterized by dextrocardia, sinusitis, and defects of ciliary function in the bronchi and non-motile sperms.

• Middle lobe bronchiectasis is a sequel to pulmonary tuberculosis. This is caused by obstruction to the middle lobe bronchus by tuberculous glands. This is called “middle lobe syndrome” or “Block’s syndrome”.

Clinical features:

The clinical picture is very chronic, extending over several years.

The common site of lesion is the left lower lobe. Though children may be affected, usually symptoms manifest in early adulthood or middle age. Males are affected more than females. Digital clubbing is a prominent sign, sometimes being associated with hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropathy.

Postural cough with the production of large quantities of purulent and foul smelling sputum is the presenting complaint in most cases. On keeping for sometime, the sputum settles into 3 layers as described under lung abscess. Hemoptysis may occur frequently. This may be mild or severe. Recurrent infections such as pneumonia may develop. Repeated affection of the same lobe or segment should suggest the possibility of underlying bronchiectasis. Bronchiectasis sicca is the condition in which bronchiectasis presents with mild or severe hemoptysis without purulent sputum.

Physical examination may reveal impairment of the percussion note and diminution of respiratory sounds over the presence of coarse, persistent leathery rales. At times bronchiectasis may present with one of its complications. These include massive hemoptysis, recurrent pneumonia, emphysema, septicemia brain abscess, and cor pulmonale. Anemia develops in long standing cases due to chronic sepsis and recurrent hemoptysis. In untreated cases secondary amyloidosis may develop.


Bronchiectasis should be diagnosed by the long history, presence of clubbing, postural cough, coarse leathery rales over the affected part and reasonably normal general health. Once established, bronchiectasis is not curable by medical treatment.

Differential diagnosis

Bronchiectasis should be distinguished from chronic bronchitis and emphysema, lung abscess, tuberculosis, congenital cystic disease of the lung and malignancy. Lung abscess generally develops acutely. The right lower lobe is affected more often and the signs are localized. Tuberculosis is more common in the upper lobes and clubbing is not prominent in uncomplicated cases. Features like digital clubbing and copious sputum are seen in tuberculous bronchiectasis. Cystic disease is not uncommon. All age groups are affected. A long history or recurrent respiratory disease is present in the majority of cases. Clubbing is not prominent. The cysts may be localized or generalized. Clinical distinction from bronchiectasis is difficult. The presence of cysts in other organs like the kidneys, liver, etc, suggests the probability of congenital cystic disease of the lung. X-ray reveals the presence of soap bubble-like or ring shadows.

Diagnosis is confirmed by bronchography. This procedure is absolutely essential for determining the extent and type of bronchiectasis. Plain X-ray of the chest is not a reliable investigation to assess the site and extent of bronchiectasis.


General measures include high protein diet, treatment of intercurrent infections, and removal of focal sepsis from the upper respiratory tract. Principles of specific therapy include postural drainage, administration of antibodies, respiratory exercises and in selected cases surgical excision. Postural drainage helps in clearing the bronchi and brings about relief. The patient should be instructed to practice postural drainage regularly. This gives relief of cough and also the foul smell. The fetid odor of the breath can be controlled by administering steam inhalations containing tincture benzoin or eucalyptus oil. The choice of antibiotic is determined by microbiological studies. Intermittent antibiotic therapy is required to clear infection and prevent exacerbation. The site of lesion may have to be excised if medical treatment fails.

Indications for surgery:

The following are the indications for surgery.

• The disease is localized to one lung or one segment and is not amenable to medical therapy.
• Socio-economic factors such as non-compliance by the patient
• Uncontrollable hemoptysis in which the site of origin of blood may be detected by emergency bronchoscopy and surgical resection has to be planned;
• To reduce the area of infection-even in bilateral disease sometimes surgical resection may have to be done on the more affected side, with a view to reducing the surface area of infection; and
• To remove an obstructive lesion which tends to perpetuate the condition, eg, bronchial growth or bronchostenosis?

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