Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Bronchiectasis is a long-term breathing problem where the airways that lead to the lungs become widened. Read on to find out more about the symptoms, causes and treatments.

What is bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis is a long-term breathing problem where the airways that lead to the lungs, called bronchi, become widened. This causes a build-up of mucus, which can allow bacteria to grow and cause an infection in the lungs.

The airways have an elastic tissue that stops them from opening too far, especially when they are filled with air. In bronchiectasis, this tissue is lost, which causes the airways to be widened.

What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?

The most common symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away

  • Bringing up phlegm, especially while coughing

  • Feeling short of breath

  • Feeling tired all the time

  • Getting a runny or blocked nose and feeling of pressure around the face and forehead

  • Your lungs may feel wheezy and clogged up

  • Chest infections are more common

How common is bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis happens in about 1 in every 100 adults in the UK over the age of 70. It’s most common in women, adults over the age of 70 and in people that smoke.

What causes bronchiectasis?

There are many causes of bronchiectasis, but the most common ones are:

  • Lung infections – which can lead to damage of the airways and widening such as pneumonia or whooping cough

  • Other respiratory conditions – like COPD or asthma

  • Genetics – some babies are born with medical conditions that can make them more prone to developing bronchiectasis, like cystic fibrosis, primary ciliary dyskinesia and Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency

  • Connective tissue disorders – like rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis or systemic lupus erythematosus, where the tissue that maintains the shape of the airways is faulty and can lead to widening of the airways

  • Covid-19 – we also think that bad Covid-19 infections can cause bronchiectasis

How is bronchiectasis diagnosed?

If you have a cough that has been going on for a while, it is important that you see a GP. 

They will first ask you a few questions and have a listen to your chest. You may also get a chest X-ray to rule out other more serious causes. They may take a sample of your phlegm to test for any chest infections. 

If the GP still believes you have bronchiectasis, they will refer you to a specialist for further testing. These may include a CT scan, blood tests, phlegm tests, a lung function test and may also look into your lungs with a bronchoscopy.

How is bronchiectasis treated?

Although the damage caused to the lungs can’t be fully cured, treatments will help you feel better:

  • Exercises and special devices to help clear the mucus from your lungs

  • Medicine to improve your breathing and to de-clog your airways

  • Antibiotics to treat any chest infections and stop them from damaging your lungs further

  • Surgery may also be used in unique cases

It's important to follow a healthy lifestyle if you are living with bronchiectasis. Some advice includes:

  • Eating a balanced diet

  • Stopping smoking

  • Consider vaccinations to protect against flu

  • Regular exercise

Is bronchiectasis like COPD?

Although bronchiectasis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) both cause damage to the lung airways which makes it difficult to breathe, they are different conditions. COPD causes inflammation and damage to both the bronchi and the small airways, called alveoli, because of irritants and toxins that accumulate in the lungs. The biggest causes of COPD are smoking, allergies and pollution.

Is bronchiectasis like bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a type of pulmonary disease, where there is inflammation of the bronchi, which are the medium-sized airways in the lungs. Although bronchitis can appear with similar symptoms to bronchiectasis and is also caused by inflammation in the bronchi, it does not usually cause any long-term damage to the airways like bronchiectasis.

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you get any of these symptoms, you should go to the doctor as soon as possible:

  • Unexplained or unintentional weight loss

  • A cough that lasts more than 3 weeks

  • Coughing up blood

  • Fevers

  • Waking up drenched in sweat

  • A lot of difficulty breathing

  • Swelling of the face, chest or arms

How can Livi help?

A Livi doctor will make an individual assessment based on your symptoms. You may then be given treatment or referred for specialist care. 

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi