East Penn Press

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

That chronic chest cold may be more than you think

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 by The Press in Opinion

The nasty cycle repeated itself for decades.

Verna, a public school teacher, would suffer a serious bout of bronchitis.

A week of antibiotics knocked out the infection enough that she would feel ready to return to the classroom.

Two weeks later the bronchitis was back.

So were the antibiotics.

After repeated bronchial infections year after year, she finally sought the opinion of a pulmonary specialist.

In-depth testing and a CT scan showed she had bronchiectasis, a lung condition that results in respiratory damage.

Her airways or bronchial tubes had widened, forming pouches that trapped mucus. The trapped mucus allowed infection to grow, making it harder for her lungs to move air in and out.

Further, Verna learned she had a non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) infection that probably caused the respiratory damage.

After two grueling years on a cocktail of three powerful antibiotics, she seemingly was cured.

Or was she?

Years later, her infection has returned.

I am paying close attention to her case because I, too, have the same diagnosis.

This lung disease is not well known. Most people have never heard of it.

In fact, only one friend knew what it was, and that was only because his wife died from the disease.

Micobacteria organisms can be found throughout our environment. Major sources include soil, water and dust.

Although everyone is exposed to these organisms daily, doctors are not sure why some people get infected and most do not.

It is thought that various autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, may increase one’s infection risk.

Other NTM patients have a history of smoking or pneumonia or acid reflux disease or inhalation of inorganic dust.

I may have been susceptible to the infection because I grew up next to a cement mill and breathed in cement dust since infancy.

Bronchitis was a regular part of my life. I cannot remember a year I did not have a wracking cough and fever that kept me home from school for a week at a time.

Allergies and asthma plagued my life, as well.

So I guess I should not be surprised by the diagnosis, but I am.

I love gardening and hate to think I may have acquired the infection from the soil I enjoy playing in.

Although the disease is similar to tuberculosis, NTM is not contagious to other people. My cough might sound ominous, but it will not make anyone sick.

A friend gets frequent episodes of pneumonia, and I often wonder whether a mycobacterial infection is the underlying cause.

More often than not the disease is misdiagnosed and usually not tested for by doctors.

If I had not coughed up a little blood almost two years ago, I would never know I have the disease.

A chest X-ray led to a CT scan. Those findings led to a sputum test and a diagnosis.

Later a bronchoscopy confirmed the sputum culture results.

How long I have had this disease is anyone’s guess. Like Verna, I was treated for bronchitis for decades.

How many other folks have it and don’t know?

According to Philadelphia lung specialists I have consulted, not treating with antibiotics can be dangerous. Apparently, the long-term effects of uncontrolled NTM infections can be quite harmful, if not fatal.

So anyone who suffers from chronic bronchitis or frequent pneumonia might want to be tested for an NTM infection.

The tests are painless and might save a life.