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Bronchiolitis Obliterans Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

What Are the Symptoms of Bronchiolitis Obliterans?

Not everyone with bronchiolitis obliterans will have symptoms. The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, dry cough and sometimes wheezing and fatigue in the absence of a cold or asthma. Symptoms will normally develop over a few weeks or months and can flare up while exercising or doing manual labor. Depending on the exposure, other parts of the body may experience irritation. For example, a skin rash may develop in addition to respiratory problems. As the condition progresses, symptoms will worsen.

How Bronchiolitis Obliterans Is Diagnosed

Symptoms of bronchiolitis obliterans are similar to other lung diseases which is why your doctor will need a detailed medical history, including the mention of environmental exposure, to determine if bronchiolitis obliterans is likely. Additionally, your doctor will need to do a physical exam and listen to your breathing. They will order diagnostic tests such as a chest X-ray or CT scan of the chest, as well as non-invasive lung function tests to measure the amount of air you can breathe in and out. If the diagnosis is still unclear, a lung biopsy may be necessary.

How Bronchiolitis Obliterans Is Treated

Bronchiolitis obliterans is an irreversible and chronic condition, with available treatments that can slow progression and reduce the severity of your symptoms. It is important to catch the disease early when treatment is more likely to keep the disease from worsening. If the disease was caused by breathing in a harmful chemical, it is essential to reduce your exposure to that chemical and any other toxin.

Corticosteroids, specifically prednisone, is the most common treatment of bronchiolitis obliterans. Corticosteroids work by reducing inflammation through suppressing the immune system.

Additionally, your doctor may suggest using an inhaler or an inhaled medication like albuterol. These medications dilate the bronchial tubes and can improve wheezing and shortness of breath by causing the airways to slightly open.

When symptoms are severe, steroids may be prescribed. Steroids are strong medications used to fight inflammation. They work by suppressing the immune system. While often effective, steroids may also have side effects. Oxygen may be prescribed to increase low blood oxygen levels. Lung transplantation is very rarely recommended, and only for the sickest patients whose bronchiolitis is life-threatening, and who do not respond to other medications.

Finding Support

The Lung Association recommends chronic disease patients and caregivers seek support from their community. Learn better ways to cope with your lung condition by joining a Better Breather’s Club. You can also call the Lung Association's Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA to talk to a trained respiratory professional who can help answer your questions and connect you with support.

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

Page last updated: April 10, 2020

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