Bronchiectasis 

Introduction 

A scan showing abnormally wide airways inside the lungs 

Long-term conditions

Living with a long-term condition, including healthcare, medicines and support

Bronchiectasis is a long-term condition where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened, leading to a build-up of excess mucus that can make the lungs more vulnerable to infection.

The most common symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • a persistent cough that usually brings up phlegm (sputum)
  • breathlessness

The severity of symptoms can vary widely. Some people have only a few symptoms that don't appear often, while others have wide-ranging symptoms that occur daily.

The symptoms tend to get worse if you develop an infection in your lungs.

Read more about the symptoms of bronchiectasis.

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if you develop a persistent cough. While this may not necessarily be the result of bronchiectasis, it will require further investigation.

If your GP suspects you may have bronchiectasis, they will refer you to a specialist in treating lung conditions (a respiratory consultant) for further tests.

Read more about diagnosing bronchiectasis.

How the lungs are affected

The lungs are full of tiny branching airways, known as bronchi. Oxygen travels through these airways, ends up in tiny sacs called alveoli, and from there is absorbed into the bloodstream.

The inside walls of the bronchi are coated with sticky mucus, which protects against damage from particles moving down into the lungs.

In bronchiectasis, one or more of the bronchi are abnormally widened. This means more mucus than usual gathers there, which makes the bronchi more vulnerable to infection. If an infection does develop, the bronchi may be damaged again so that even more mucus gathers in them and the risk of infection increases further.

Over time, this cycle can cause gradually worsening damage to the lungs.

Why it happens

Bronchiectasis can develop if the tissue and muscles that surround the bronchi are damaged or destroyed. 

There are number of reasons why this may happen. The three most common causes in the UK are:

  • a lung infection during childhood, such as pneumonia or whooping cough, that damages the bronchi
  • underlying problems with the immune system (the body’s defence against infection) that make the bronchi more vulnerable to damage from an infection
  • allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) – an allergy to a certain type of fungi that can cause the bronchi to become inflamed if spores from the fungi are inhaled

However, in over half of all cases of bronchiectasis no obvious cause for the condition can be found.

Read more about the causes of bronchiectasis.

Who is affected

Bronchiectasis is thought to be uncommon. It's estimated that about 1 in every 1,000 adults in the UK have the condition.

It can affect anyone at any age, but symptoms don't usually develop until middle age.

Almost 16,000 people visited hospital in England during 2011-12 with bronchiectasis, of which almost 12,000 were aged 60 or older.

How bronchiectasis is treated

The damage caused to the lungs by bronchiectasis is permanent, but treatment can help relieve your symptoms and stop the damage getting worse.

The main treatments include:

  • exercises and special devices to help you clear mucus out of your lungs
  • medication to help improve airflow within the lungs
  • antibiotics to treat any lung infections that develop

Surgery is usually only considered for bronchiectasis in rare cases where other treatments have been ineffective, the damage to your bronchi is confined to a small area and you are in good general health.

Read more about the treatment of bronchiectasis.

Possible complications

Complications of bronchiectasis are rare but when they do occur they can be serious. One of the most serious complications is coughing up large amounts of blood due to one of the blood vessels in the lungs splitting. This problem can be life-threatening and may require emergency surgery to treat it.

Read more about the complications of bronchiectasis.

Outlook

The outlook for people with bronchiectasis is highly variable and often depends on the underlying cause.

Living with bronchiectasis can be stressful and frustrating, but most people with the condition will have a normal life expectancy. In people with very severe symptoms, however, bronchiectasis can be fatal if the lungs stop working properly.

Around 1,000 deaths reported in England and Wales each year are thought to be due to bronchiectasis.




Page last reviewed: 29/08/2013

Next review due: 29/08/2015

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Dayyam said on 31 May 2014

#alicia
hope yo daughter s doing well, my prayers.

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alicia 65 said on 19 January 2014

my daughter has had this condition since birth she's is now 22 and just constantly coughs she finds it hard to cough up the mucus due to her severe dyspraxia. When I put my hand on her lungs I can feel the vibrations, the coughing is worse when she lays down, about half an hour ago now she got up and we noticed her legs were shaky, she fell flat down and I couldn't get a response, she was unconscious for 3 minutes I moved her over to her side and when she came too her legs were shaking and she was very clammy to touch. She had food, so it wasn't that, she also has low blood pressure. We moved her to the settee and her legs were still shaking so I raised them up, she said her eyes went all blurry as she got up the next thing she went down. She has fainted before.

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