Bronchiectasis - Diagnosis

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How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?

Diagnosis of bronchiectasis begins with history and physical examination.

The patient will complain of daily cough and sputum production that may or may not be bloody due to damage to the bronchial tubes or from infection. Shortness of breath with activity or at rest, wheezing, fatigue, and chest pain are all common complaints.

Physical examination may be relatively normal, or lung examination may reveal wheezing and crackles. Depending up on the severity of disease and how long it has been present, other findings may include weight loss, cyanosis (a bluish color of the skin and the mucous membranes due to an insufficient level of oxygen), and right heart failure (manifested by shortness of breath, leg swelling, and liver enlargement).

The history and physical exam may lead to the suspicion of the diagnosis and the health care practitioner may order a high resolution chest CT scan, which will confirm the diagnosis. The CT may also help in finding the underlying reason why bronchiectasis developed.

Plain chest X-rays may be used in helping make the diagnosis and help track the progression of the disease, but these findings are often much more subtle than those seen by CT scans.

Once the diagnosis of bronchiectasis is made, the underlying cause needs to be found. Blood tests and sputum tests may be indicated depending upon the clinical situation. Often a lung specialist (pulmonologist) will be consulted to help direct the investigation and testing.

Pulmonary function studies or pulmonary function tests (PFTs) may be helpful in assessing what kind and how much lung damage has occurred. Bronchiectasis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and this testing can help confirm this. These tests can help determine whether the lung tissue will respond to the use of bronchodilator treatment with inhaler medications (please see treatment section). Repeated over time, pulmonary function studies can help document the benefits of treatment or progression of the disease.

Less commonly, bronchoscopy is used to look inside the airways with a fiberoptic camera. This is sometimes done to look for tumors or foreign bodies that may have been seen on CT. In some cases, bronchoscopy can be used therapeutically to remove excessive retained secretions.

Screening for cystic fibrosis occurs for all newborns.

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See what others are saying

Comment from: Skatscat, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: December 17

I had bronchitis and the doctor asked how long it had been since I had had a chest x-ray. It was at least 25 to 30 years, so he took an x-ray. I was sent very soon after to a pulmonologist!

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Comment from: brownie, 55-64 Male (Patient) Published: October 18

First, I have seasonal allergies, which get worse in the fall. In August 2010, I was treated with antibiotics for coughing up yellow/brown mucus which had specks of blood. The antibiotics cleared the problem up. I had the Flu this year, which put me in bed for 10 days. This September I started with the yellow/brown mucus, again with blood specks, more than before. I was planning surgery and my doctor sent me for a CT of the chest, which showed "Mild diffuse bronchiectasis without suspicious intraluminal lesions." I am a retired firefighter, after 31.5 years, and I don't smoke. My guess is that the damage was done during my time as a firefighter. I have an appointment with a pulmonary doctor next month, as the ENT doctor that treated it the first time says that they don't treat lung problems. Well folks, I'll let you know how things turn out.

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