The damage to the lungs associated with bronchiectasis is permanent, but treatment can help prevent the condition getting worse.
In most cases, treatment involves a combination of medication, exercises you can learn and devices to help clear your airways. Surgery for bronchiectasis is rare.
There are a number of things you can do to help relieve the symptoms of bronchiectasis and stop the condition getting worse, including:
There are a range of exercises, known as airway clearance techniques, which can help to remove mucus from your lungs. This can often help improve coughing and breathlessness in people with bronchiectasis.
You can be referred to a physiotherapist, who can teach you these techniques.
Active cycle of breathing techniques (ACBT)
The most widely used technique in the UK is called active cycle of breathing techniques (ACBT).
ACBT involves you repeating a cycle made up of a number of different steps. These include a period of normal breathing, followed by deep breaths to loosen the mucus and force it up; then you cough the mucus out. The cycle is then repeated for 20 to 30 minutes.
Don't attempt ACBT if you haven't first been taught the steps by a suitably trained physiotherapist, as performing the techniques incorrectly could damage your lungs.
If you're otherwise in good health, you'll probably only need to perform ACBT once or twice a day. If you develop a lung infection, you may need to perform ACBT on a more frequent basis.
Changing your position can also make it easier to remove mucus from your lungs. This is known as postural drainage.
Each technique can involve several complex steps, but most techniques involve you leaning or lying down while the physiotherapist or a carer uses their hands to vibrate certain sections of your lungs as you go through a series of "huffing" and coughing.
There are also a number of handheld devices that can help to remove mucus from your lungs.
Although these devices look different, most work in a similar way. Generally, they use a combination of vibrations and air pressure to make it easier to cough out any mucus.
Examples of these devices include the flutter, the RC cornet and the Acapella.
However, these devices aren't always available on the NHS, so you may have to pay for one yourself. They usually cost £45 to £60.
In some cases, medications to make breathing or clearing your lungs easier may be prescribed. These are discussed below.
Occasionally, medication inhaled through a device called a nebuliser may be recommended to help make it easier for you to clear your lungs.
Nebulisers are devices consisting of a face mask or mouthpiece, a chamber to convert the medication into a fine mist, and a compressor to pump the medication into your lungs.
A number of different medications can be administered using a nebuliser, including salt water solutions. These medications help to reduce the thickness of your phlegm so it's easier to cough it out. Nebulisers can also be used to administer antibiotics, if necessary (see below).
However, while the medications used with a nebuliser can be provided on prescription, the nebuliser device itself isn't always available on the NHS. In some areas, a local respiratory service may provide the device without charge, but if this isn't an option, you may have to pay for a device.
If you have a particularly severe flare-up of symptoms, you may be prescribed bronchodilator medications on a short-term basis.
Bronchodilators are inhaled medications that help make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in the lungs. Examples of this type of medication include beta2-adrenergic agonist, anticholinergics and theophylline.
If you experience a worsening of symptoms because of a bacterial infection (known as an "infective exacerbation") then you'll need to be treated with antibiotics.
A sample of phlegm will be taken to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection, although you'll be initially treated with an antibiotic known to be effective against a number of different bacteria (a broad spectrum antibiotic) because it can take a few days to get the test results.
Depending on the test results, you may be prescribed a different antibiotic, or in some cases, a combination of antibiotics known to be effective against the specific bacteria causing the infection.
If you're well enough to be treated at home, you'll probably be prescribed two to three antibiotic tablets a day for 10-14 days. It's important to finish the course even if you feel better, as stopping the course prematurely could cause the infection to recur quickly.
If your symptoms are more severe (see symptoms of bronchiectasis for a detailed description) you may need to be admitted to hospital and treated with antibiotic injections.
If you have three or more infective exacerbations in any one year, or your symptoms during an infective exacerbation were particularly severe, it may be recommended that you take antibiotics on a long-term basis. This can help to prevent further infections and give your lungs the chance to recover.
This could involve taking low-dose antibiotic tablets to minimise the risk of side effects, or using an antibiotic nebuliser (see above for more information about nebulisers).
Using antibiotics in this way does increase the risk that one or more types of bacteria will develop a resistance to the antibiotic. Therefore, you may be asked to give regular phlegm samples to check for any resistance. If bacteria do show signs of developing a resistance, then your antibiotic may need to be changed.
Surgery is usually only recommended where bronchiectasis is only affecting a single section of your lung, your symptoms aren't responding to other treatment and you don't have an underlying condition that could cause bronchiectasis to recur.
The lungs are made up of sections known as lobes – the left lung has two lobes and the right lung has three lobes. Surgery for focal bronchiectasis would usually involve removing the lobe affected by the bronchiectasis in a type of operation known as a lobectomy.
Surgery won't be used if more than one lobe is affected, as it’s too dangerous to remove so much lung tissue.