Frequent Exacerbations of COPD and Bronchiectasis on CT Scan

Why Am I Having Frequent Exacerbations?

Dear Dr. Mahler:

I recently had a CT scan without contrast which shows no increase in several bullae, but now shows bronchiectasis.  My doctor said this was common with copd (emphysema FEV1 = 26% predicted), but not what classification. 

I have never had a cough or sputum even with exacerbations, which I have every 4 – 6 weeks for 3 years.  Should I ask for further clarification of this?  My doctor prescribed azithromycin every other day, but after several weeks always get diarrhea.  Thank you for your input.

Marie from Saco, ME

Dear Marie,

It sounds like your doctor ordered the CT scan of your chest to look for a reason for your frequent exacerbations. As I sure that you know, it is unusual to have flare-ups every 4 – 6 weeks as you are experiencing. It is important to figure out the reason.

On October 28, 2016, I posted the findings presented at the 2016 CHEST meeting that bronchiectasis was a risk factor for frequent exacerbations. If you have not read it, I encourage you to review the information (under the heading COPD News).

Bronchiectasis is a chronic condition in which the walls of the breathing tubes are thickened from long-term inflammation and scarring. It usually develops as a result of pneumonia which can damage the lungs and provide a reservoir, or space, for bacteria or mycobacteria. Over time, the number of bacteria increase in number leading to symptoms such as cough, yellow-green mucus, chest congestion, and difficulty breathing.

CT scan shows cystic bronchiectasis which can cause frequent exacerbations

A slice of the chest on a high-resolution CT scan in a 62 year old with cystic bronchiectasis. The cysts are seen on the lower portions of both lungs.

Bronchiectasis is common in those with COPD. In one study, bronchiectasis was found in 29% of 110 patients from 40 – 80 years old who were diagnosed as having COPD by their primary care physician (O’Brien. Thorax. year 2000; volume 55; pages 635-642).

Even though you are not coughing up any phlegm, I suggest that you ask your doctor to see if it possible to try to obtain a sample of mucus from your lungs. The reason is to find out if you have a chronic lung infection that is causing repeated exacerbations. The sample should be sent to the microbiology laboratory at the hospital for culture of bacteria, mycobacteria, and fungi.

The easiest approach is to breathe a solution of saline (salt water) from a nebulizer to see if this can cause you to cough something up. A respiratory therapist can help with this.

If this is not successful, you may want to ask your doctor about

Diagram of scope passed thru mouth into the lungs (called bronchoscopy)

Diagram of scope passed thru mouth into the lungs (called bronchoscopy)

bronchoscopy. This is an out-patient procedure in which a tube is placed through your mouth and then passed into the breathing tubes. Sterile water can be passed through a channel in the scope; the water can “capture” possible infectious organisms. The fluid is then suctioned back into a container for culture. I have done this in some individuals to successfully identify whether a bacteria, mycobacteria, or fungus is contributing to repeated flare-ups.

Finally, have you been tested for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency? Bronchiectasis is common in those with this hereditary type of emphysema. A simple blood test is used to test for this condition.

Also, I suggest that your doctor consider measuring immunoglobulin levels (A, G, and M) in your blood to evaluate for acquired immunodeficiency. Immunoglobulins are proteins in the blood that fight infection. Low levels may make it more likely for infections to occur. Replacement therapy is available for low Immunoglobulin G (abbreviated IgG) levels which can help the body fight or prevent infections.

Best wishes on finding an answer.

Donald A. Mahler, M.D.