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What is bronchiectasis and how is it caused?

Bronchiectasis is a long-term condition that affects the airways in your lungs.

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What is bronchiectasis?

When you breathe, air is carried into your lungs through your airways, also called bronchi. The bronchi divide again and again into thousands of smaller airways called bronchioles. Your airways contain tiny glands that produce a small amount of mucus. Mucus helps to keep your airways moist, and traps the dust and germs that you breathe in. The mucus is moved away by tiny hairs, called cilia, which line your airways.

If you have bronchiectasis, your airways are widened and inflamed with thick mucus, also called phlegm or sputum. Your airways may not clear themselves properly. This means mucus builds up and your airways can become infected by bacteria. Pockets in the airways mean that mucus gets trapped and is likely to get infected.

healthy versus bronchiectasis lung image

Sometimes, if the number of bacteria multiply, you’ll get a chest infection or a flare-up of your symptoms. It’s important to recognise and treat chest infections. If you don’t get treatment, your airways may be damaged further. The changes to your airways can’t be reversed, but there are ways you and your health care team can treat and manage bronchiectasis.

Bronchiectasis is sometimes called non-cystic fibrosis bronchiectasis. This is because there is a different condition called cystic fibrosis. People who have cystic fibrosis can have lung symptoms similar to those of bronchiectasis, but the treatments and outlook are different.

What are the symptoms of bronchiectasis?

Symptoms of bronchiectasis vary between people. You may have 1 or 2 on the list below, or you may have most of them.

The most common symptom is a long-term cough, usually coughing up sputum, sometimes called phlegm. The amount varies. For people with more severe bronchiectasis it can be quite large amount, for example an egg cup full or more every day. Some people might have a dry cough with no or very little sputum.

Frequent chest infections are also a common feature of bronchiectasis.

Other symptoms of bronchiectasis you might have are:

  • feeling very tired or finding it difficult to concentrate
  • breathlessness: having difficulty breathing or feeling short of breath
  • problems with your sinuses
  • cough incontinence, also called bladder leakage
  • anxiety or depression

Less common symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain

What causes bronchiectasis?

For up to half of people diagnosed with bronchiectasis, there’s no clear underlying cause. This is called idiopathic bronchiectasis.

Some illnesses linked to bronchiectasis include:

  • having had severe lung infections such as pneumonia, whooping cough or tuberculosis (TB) in the past, for example when you were a child
  • inflammatory bowel disease, also called ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
  • immune system deficiencies
  • some types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • a problem with the normal structure or function of your lungs, such as primary ciliary dyskinesia
  • asthma, COPD or sarcoidosis

Other causes include:

  • a severe allergic response to fungus or moulds such as Aspergillus
  •  gastric reflux
  • a blockage of your airways, caused by breathing in a small item such as a nut

Next: diagnosing bronchiectasis >

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Download our bronchiectasis PDF (108 KB)

Last medically reviewed: March 2020. Due for review: March 2023

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.