Learn About Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) is a form of chronic lung disease that affects newborns, most often those who are born prematurely and need oxygen therapy. In BPD the lungs and the airways (bronchi) are damaged, causing tissue destruction (dysplasia) in the tiny air sacs of the lung (alveoli).

Key Facts

  • Babies are not born with BPD; the condition results from damage to the lungs, usually caused by mechanical ventilation (respirator) and long-term use of oxygen.
  • An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 newborns develop BPD in the United States every year.
  • The severity of the disease varies from infant to infant. The more premature the newborn, the greater the risk of developing BPD.

How Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia Affects Your Body

In the lungs, BPD causes damage to the current and developing alveoli. Additionally, the tiny blood vessels surrounding the alveoli may be affected, making the passage of blood through the lungs more difficult. The lower the number of working alveoli, the longer the infant may need to remain on a ventilator, which can cause further damage to the child’s lungs.

In the long run, increased pressure inside the blood vessels in the lungs and between the heart and lungs can cause pulmonary hypertension. In severe cases, heart failure can occur. Newborns who suffer from BPD may also experience trouble feeding, leading to delayed development.

What Causes Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia?

BPD is a respiratory disease that can occur when a newborn’s lungs are undeveloped at birth, requiring the use of a ventilator or oxygen therapy for support. Because newborns’ lungs are particularly vulnerable, high amounts of inhaled oxygen and pressure may overstretch the alveoli, causing inflammation and damage to the inside lining of the airways, the alveoli and the blood vessels around them. These effects are particularly damaging on the premature lung, and BPD is considered to be primarily a complication of prematurity.

Different conditions may affect the growth of the fetus during the pregnancy and may also lead to premature labor. Prenatal infections or maternal complications such as smoking, drug use, placental abnormalities (preeclampsia) and inflammation of the fetal membranes (chorioamnionitis) may cause BPD.

After birth, respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is closely linked to the development of BPD, though only some infants with RDS will develop BPD. Another condition called patent ductus arteriosus, a heart defect in which the blood vessel connecting the right and left side of the heart fail to close and remain open, may lead to BPD if the child is put on a ventilator.

Who Is at Risk for BPD?

The degree of prematurity in an infant is largely what puts a child at risk of developing BPD. A majority of newborns who develop BPD are born more than 10 weeks early, weigh less than two pounds at birth, and are born with breathing problems. BPD is rare in infants born after 32 weeks of pregnancy.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: March 3, 2020

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