fighting
pulmonary fibrosis

and infection

sign up to receive quarterly newsletters

Bronchiectasis

The following is a brief overview of this condition. For more information, please refer to the guidelines from the British Thoracic Society or the British Lung Foundation. You may also like to visit www.bronchiectasis.info/ or www.bronchiectasishelp.org.uk which are patient-run websites.

What Is Bronchiectasis?
What Causes Bronchiectasis?
What Are The Symptoms of Bronchiectasis?
How is Bronchiectasis Diagnosed?
Can Bronchiectasis Be Treated Or Prevented?
Living With Bronchiectasis
Ongoing Research

What Is Bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis is an abnormal increase in the size of the bronchi, which are the tubes that take air into the lung. Having big and baggy bronchi means that bacteria get caught in these tubes much more easily than they can in the normal narrow bronchi. As a result, patients with bronchiectasis often have chronically infected bronchi, and this is what causes most of the symptoms. The severity of bronchiectasis varies a lot between patients; some patients will only have mild disease and only know they have bronchiectasis as they require antibiotics for a chest infection once a year or so; others have severe disease which means they have to take antibiotics all the time and may even have problems with their breathing due to the chronic lung damage. Most patients with bronchiectasis are somewhere between these two extremes.

back to top

What Causes Bronchiectasis?

The commonest causes of bronchiectasis are:

  1. Idiopathic (about 50% of patients); that is, we do not know why these patients have bronchiectasis. The presumption is that these patients have relatively minor defects in their ability to clear the lungs of infection, allowing bacteria to stay in the bronchi and cause damage. But we do not know for sure and so one important area of research is to work out why these patients develop bronchiectasis.
  2. Post-lung infection. Childhood (and sometimes adult) lung infections such as tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough and pneumonia can leave behind areas of damaged lung with bronchiectasis.
  3. Immune defects. Patients with low antibody levels or other problems with the immune system suffer from recurrent lung infections, which can lead to bronchiectasis.
  4. Cystic fibrosis and ciliary dyskinesia. These are rare inherited genetic diseases in which the bronchi are unable to clear bacteria and the chronic infection results in bronchiectasis.
  5. Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA). Patients with ABPA have developed an allergy to a fungus called Aspergillus. We all breathe in spores of Aspergillus everyday, and these inflame the lungs of patients who have the allergy to the fungus, damaging the bronchi and resulting in bronchiectasis.
  6. Rheumatoid arthritis. Many patients with rheumatoid arthritis will also develop lung damage including bronchiectasis, probably as the inflammation caused by the rheumatoid arthritis also affects the lung.

In addition, there are a large number of rare causes of bronchiectasis.

back to top

What Are The Symptoms of Bronchiectasis?

The main symptom is recurrent chest infections, in which the patient develops a cough productive of green phlegm, and perhaps increased shortness of breath, fever, chest pains and malaise. In between infections, most patients will bring up some phlegm most days – small amounts of clear phlegm in milder cases, but patients with severe disease can produce large amounts of green and thick phlegm each day even when well. Patients with severe disease may also be short of breath when walking fast due to the underlying lung damage.

back to top

How is Bronchiectasis Diagnosed?

Bronchiectasis is usually diagnosed using a detailed X-ray of the lungs called a CT scan. A standard chest X ray is often normal or near normal in patients with bronchiectasis, and even when abnormal, the changes that are present may not be obviously due to bronchiectasis. Blood tests are required to test for some of the causes of bronchiectasis and it is also important to measure the lung size and function by a simple breathing test called spirometry.

back to top

Can Bronchiectasis Be Treated?

Once bronchiectasis has developed, the damage cannot be reversed. However, in most patients, the disease either does not worsen or only slowly worsens with time, and the combination of regular physiotherapy to clear the chest and appropriate antibiotics control the symptoms reasonable well. It is vital that chest infections are treated quickly with effective antibiotics, eg. amoxicillin 500mg tds or coamoxiclav 625mg tds for at least 10 to 14 days. These prolonged courses of stronger antibiotics are important to prevent the chest infections recurring quickly. Some patients with frequent chest infections requiring antibiotics several times per year will need to start low dose antibiotics all the time to prevent infections. Characterising exactly what happens during an exacerbation of bronchiectasis and investigating the best longterm treatments are other areas of importance for research.

back to top

Living With Bronchiectasis

The most important considerations for patients with bronchiectasis are the following:

  1. They need to perform regular lung clearance techniques to prevent phlegm and bacteria accumulating in the lungs. Except for patients with mild bronchiectasis, this will probably need to be done once or twice a day.
  2. When an infection develops, the patient needs to start antibiotics as quickly as possible as this allows the infection to be brought under control more rapidly than if the antibiotics are delayed. Most patients should therefore have a reserve course of antibiotics at home. And it is important that the antibiotics are taken for 10 to 14 days to ensure the infection is well-controlled and less likely to return when the antibiotics are stopped.
  3. To help prevent infections, the patients should have an annual vaccination against flu, and be vaccinated against pneumonia. And they should never smoke cigarettes.
  4. Some patients may need to take inhalers, nebulisers or continual low dose antibiotics as well.

back to top

Ongoing Research at Research, UCL

For many years, the disease of bronchiectasis has not received the attention it deserves, considering that our recent research (Quint et al. European Respiratory Journal, in press 2015) shows that maybe 100,000 people in the UK with the condition. There has been so little research into bronchiectasis that even the most basic questions about why patients get chest infections (called exacerbations) are not really known, and there are many questions about the best long term treatments that still need answering.

At UCL, we have an established programme of research into lung infections, which recently has started investigating patients with bronchiectasis in collaboration with our partners within University College London, Royal Free and Whittington Hospitals. This collaboration has resulted in a research paper describing in detail the changes in clinical condition that occur in a patient with bronchiectasis who is having an infective exacerbation (Brill et al. Respiratory Research, 2014). In addition, we are members of a Medical Research Council funded partnership of nine centres across the UK who are collaborating into research into different aspects of bronchiectasis. We are researching why patients with bronchiectasis develop exacerbations of their condition, and what are the best ways to prevent these exacerbations occurring. These research programmes do require financial resources in order to pay for the various laboratory tests necessary – we hope that by using relatively small amounts of money to fund initial research, we will then be able to apply for large grants to fully answer some of the important questions about how best to treat patients with bronchiectasis.

Some of the research projects that we need funding for are:

  1. Identifying changes in bacterial and viral infection of the lung during exacerbations of bronchiectasis.
  2. Identifying any genetic defects that might be the cause of idiopathic bronchiectasis.
  3. Investigating whether any changes in the blood can be used to identify specific causes of bronchiectasis and patients who have more severe disease that needs more intensive treatment.
  4. Using a large computer database to look into how common bronchiectasis is and how much ill-health it causes

back to top