Understanding Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD)

BPD is a long-term lung disease that causes breathing problems in newborns and babies. It commonly affects babies who are born early (before 32 weeks). It also affects babies of low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds). Most babies recover from BPD. Some continue to have breathing problems that last a long time. BPD is also called neonatal chronic lung disease (CLD).

Babies born early (premature) can get BPD because they don't have a lot of tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. After birth, the tiny air sacs are not fully developed and don't work as they should. This is especially true if they have a lung problem called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). These babies are kept in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Your baby may have BPD if they have breathing problems that last past a certain point. Your baby may need oxygen or a machine to help him or her breathe.

Front view of newborn's head and chest showing lungs with one inset showing normal alveoli and another inset showing bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

Diagnosing BPD

BPD can be mild, moderate, or severe. It's diagnosed based on the amount of extra oxygen a baby needs when he or she reaches the expected due date. Diagnosis is also based on how long the baby needs oxygen.

Your baby may have tests such as chest X-rays, blood tests, and an echocardiography. They can help healthcare providers know for sure if the baby has BPD. Babies in the NICU usually get tested daily.

Treating BPD

If your baby is born early, he or she may get a shot of medicine called surfactant. It coats the inside of the lungs and helps keep your baby's lungs open after birth. It also helps your baby breathe air in and out of the lungs.

Most babies who get BPD start to get better in months. Treatments are needed to help make sure your baby is getting enough oxygen. These may include:

  • A machine to help your baby breathe

  • Extra oxygen through a special hood, nasal tubes, or a face mask

  • Giving fluids through needles or tubes in the baby's veins for nutrition and growth

  • Incubators to keep the baby warm and help prevent infections

  • Ongoing monitoring of your baby's heart rate, breathing, temperature, blood pressure, and blood oxygen level

Other treatments for BPD can include:

  • Breastmilk or formula with extra nutrition added. Babies with BPD often use more energy than other babies.

  • Giving the baby less fluid or giving medicines called diuretics. This can help lower the amount of fluid in your baby’s lungs.

  • Keep the baby away from air pollution, cigarette smoke, dust, and other things that can irritate the lungs. Ask your child's healthcare provider what else to avoid to help your baby's condition.

  • Practice correct handwashing to help prevent infections. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands. Try to avoid family and friends who are ill.

Possible complications of BPD

Babies with BPD often spend weeks or even months in the NICU. After the hospital stay, babies with BPD can have other problems. These may include:

  • High blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)

  • Problems with the eyes (seeing, vision) and ears (hearing)

  • Delayed speech

  • Heart problems

  • Problems with normal development or learning

  • Increased risk of lung infections

  • Feeding problems (stomach contents back up into the throat and esophagus)

Contact your baby's healthcare provider if he or she develops new or worsening symptoms.

Lowering the risk

The doctor may take steps to help keep a baby from getting RDS, which can lead to BPD. These steps may include:

  • Giving you steroid medicines while you are pregnant to help your baby.

  • Having your baby use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. This can help your baby breathe better.

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