Bronchiectasis is a long term condition, caused by damage to the lungs' airways, that affects their ability to clear out mucus. A result is that mucus builds up, and bacteria begin to grow leading to repeated, serious lung infections.

The main symptom of bronchiectasis is a mucus-producing cough. Treatment is likely to include antibiotics and other medications, while physiotherapy is used to remove mucus from the lungs.

Bronchiectasis can develop at any age but it is more likely to occur in childhood. In New Zealand, Pacific Island and Maori children are significantly more at risk of developing the condition than children of other ethnicities, with at least 80% of all cases occurring in these ethnic groups. It is estimated that approximately one new case of bronchiectasis isdiagnosed in New Zealand every ten days.

General information

Within the lungs, air passages called bronchi form a tree-like structure through which air travels in and out. The bronchi are lined with tiny hair-like projections called cilia, which work to sweep mucus upwards within the lungs, allowing it to be easily coughed out. Bronchiectasis is a condition in which some of the bronchi have become scarred and permanently enlarged. During the disease process the cilia are damaged so that they are unable to effectively sweep away the mucus. As a result, mucus accumulates in parts of the lung that are affected and the risk of developing lung infections is increased. Recurrent infections can then cause further scarring and bronchial enlargement thereby perpetuating the condition.


Prior to the introduction of widespread immunisations programs, bronchiectasis often occurred as the result of infection with measles or whooping cough. Currently bronchiectasis usually occurs as the result of an illness such as pneumonia (approximately 25% of all cases).

Other causes include:

  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Immune deficiency
  • Recurrent aspiration of fluid into the lungs (as occurs with gastroesophageal reflux)
  • Inhalation of a foreign object into the lungs (if left untreated)
  • Inhalation of harmful chemicals eg: ammonia
  • In rare cases it may be congenital (present at birth). In many cases the underlying cause of the condition is unable to be identified.

Signs and symptoms

The main symptom of bronchiectasis is a mucus-producing cough. The cough is usually worse in the mornings and is often brought on by changes in posture. The mucus may be yellow-green in colour and foul smelling, indicating the presence of infection.

Other symptoms may include

  • Coughing up blood (more common in adults)
  • Bad breath
  • Wheezing chest - a characteristic crackling sound may be heard when listening with a stethoscope.
  • Recurring lung infections
  • A decline in general health
  • In advanced bronchiectasis, breathlessness can occur.
  • The onset of symptoms often occurs slowly. As the disease progresses, coughing worsens and increasing amounts of mucus are produced.


An initial diagnosis of bronchiectasis is based on the patient's symptoms, their medical history and a physical examination. Further diagnostic tests may include:

  • Chest x-ray
  • CT (computerised tomography) scan
  • Blood tests
  • Testing of the mucus to identify any bacteria present
  • Checking oxygen levels in the blood
  • Lung function tests (spirometry).