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Bronchiectasis in children

What is bronchiectasis and how will it affect my child?

Bronchiectasis is a condition caused by damage to the lungs. On this page we’ll cover what bronchiectasis is, what causes it, what the symptoms are and how it is diagnosed.

What is bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis is a long-term condition that affects the airways in the lungs. It happens when the airways are wider and thicker because of damage and scarring.

Bronchiectasis can happen in part of a lung, or the whole lung. It can affect one or both lungs.

ronchiectasis in children: lungs diagram

Your child’s airways contain glands that produce a small amount of mucus. Mucus helps trap dust and germs. Tiny hairs called cilia move it away.

If your child has bronchiectasis, the airways in the lung (like a series of branching tubes) can’t clear themselves properly. This means mucus builds up in these areas and the airways can become infected with bacteria. 

Unfortunately, the damage cannot be reversed.  However, treatment can prevent further damage and reduce your child’s symptoms. 

Is bronchiectasis common in babies and children?

Most people newly diagnosed with bronchiectasis are adults over 70. It is not a common condition in babies or children, but they can be affected.

What are the causes of bronchiectasis in children?

Bronchiectasis is caused by damage to your child’s lungs.

It is important to try to find out how their airways were damaged. This can help with treatment and preventing more damage. But for about 40% of children and adults, there is no clear cause for their bronchiectasis.

Some known causes include:

  • severe respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis or whooping cough (infections are the most common cause)
  • a problem with your child’s immune system (an immune deficiency) which means they are more likely to get a lot of bacterial infections
  • a problem with the way your child’s lungs developed 
  • a blockage caused by something your child inhaled, such as a small nut
  • an underlying inherited disease such as cystic fibrosis or primary ciliary dyskinesia
  • accidentally breathing in stomach acid that has come up your child’s food tube

What are the signs and symptoms of bronchiectasis in children?

The most common sign of bronchiectasis is a persistent cough that brings up a lot of mucus – especially if the cough carries on in between colds and infections. 

Some children may cough up mucus with blood in it.

Your child might be very tired or they might wheeze when they breathe. They may be more breathless than usual after exercise.

Mucus is hard to digest. If your child swallows mucus they may vomit it up. This usually makes them feel a lot better. Coughing can sometimes cause vomiting too.

If your child has been diagnosed with asthma but this has not got better with treatment or they have lots of chest infections with green or yellow mucus, they may have bronchiectasis.

Is there any way to prevent bronchiectasis?

It is not always possible to prevent the lung damage that causes bronchiectasis. But you can do lots of things to reduce the risks to your child’s lungs.  Take a look at our information about risks.

How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your child’s medical history and their symptoms.

If the doctor thinks that your child might have bronchiectasis, they will recommend a high-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) scan to see if their airways are widened. This is done using a type of X-ray machine.

They may also do other tests to try and find out how your child’s lungs were damaged. These might include:

  • testing your child’s mucus to find out if bacteria are present
  • blood tests to check your child’s immune system
  • a procedure to look into your child’s lungs using a small camera on the end of a tube called a bronchoscope
  • tests on your child’s sweat to see if they have cystic fibrosis
  • tests to find out if your child has gastro-oesophageal reflux (for example, a tube inserted from their nose into their stomach for 24 hours to measure acid levels)
  • brushing of the inside of your child’s nose to check if the hair-like structures on airway cells called cilia are working properly, to look for primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD).

Next: how is bronchiectasis treated? >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.