Bronchiectasis vs. Bronchitis: How to Tell the Difference

Man holding his chest.

Do you often experience coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain? These symptoms could indicate a chronic respiratory condition, such as bronchiectasis or chronic bronchitis.

While these two conditions share some similarities, their differences can impact your treatment for symptom management.

In this article, we’ll explore the similarities and differences between bronchiectasis and bronchitis, helping you better understand these conditions and how to find relief.

What Is Bronchiectasis?

Bronchiectasis is a chronic lung condition where the airways become damaged and widened, making it difficult to breathe and clear mucus independently.

When the lungs cannot mobilize and clear mucus buildup, patients become more prone to a repeated cycle of inflammation and respiratory infection, further damaging the lungs and airways.

Although bronchiectasis is irreversible, treatment is available to help patients manage symptoms and prevent infections from recurring.

Discover a smart solution to managing bronchiectasis symptoms.

What Is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis falls under the category of COPD, an umbrella term used to describe lung diseases that constrict airways and make breathing more difficult.¹

Chronic bronchitis differs from acute bronchitis since the latter is typically the result of a virus and will eventually go away with proper treatment.²

Bronchitis is considered “chronic” when it develops from years of cigarette use, long-term exposure to air pollutants, or is the result of another underlying condition, such as

  • Asthma
  • Pulmonary emphysema (also part of COPD)
  • Scarring of the lungs
  • Respiratory infections³

Chronic bronchitis develops from long-term inflammation of the bronchi (i.e., airways).4 Inflammation leads to excess mucus production, which eventually develops into a respiratory infection, thus further damaging the lungs and airways.

How Are These Conditions Similar?

Bronchiectasis and chronic bronchitis share similarities in that both involve chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes (i.e., airways), which can produce excess mucus.

Let’s recap:

  • In bronchiectasis, the bronchial tubes become permanently damaged and widen, making it difficult to clear mucus from the lungs.
  • In chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed, which can cause coughing and difficulty breathing.5

Bronchiectasis vs. Chronic Bronchitis

It’s important to remember that bronchiectasis and chronic bronchitis are distinct respiratory conditions with different underlying causes and treatment approaches.


While both conditions involve mucus buildup, chronic coughing, and difficulty breathing, bronchiectasis is typically caused by an underlying condition such as cystic fibrosis, damage to the cilia, or repeated respiratory infections,6 while chronic bronchitis is often caused by smoking or exposure to irritants.7

Other factors can increase risk of developing chronic bronchitis, such as exposure to air pollution or toxic gasses in the workplace.

Environmental factors and smoking do not cause bronchiectasis; however, they can trigger a worsening of symptoms.

Doctor consulting with patient presenting results on x-ray film About the problem of the patient


Clinicians can detect chronic bronchitis using a pulmonary function test, chest X-ray, or a Computed Tomography (CT) scan.8

In contrast, a high-resolution computerized tomography (HRCT) scan is the preferred method for identifying signs of bronchiectasis (i.e., abnormal widening of the airways and damage to lungs).

Watch our video on diagnosing bronchiectasis


As every patient will experience symptoms of bronchiectasis and chronic bronchitis differently, treatments may include an algorithm of different antibiotics, bronchodilators, breathing exercises, and airway clearance techniques.

Graphic icons of how to treat bronchiectasis.

How Do I Know If I Have Bronchiectasis vs. Chronic Bronchitis?

While both bronchiectasis and chronic bronchitis share similar symptoms, their underlying causes and treatment methods differ significantly. Therefore, seeking a proper diagnosis from your healthcare team is crucial for effective management and prevention of complications.

Patients experiencing these conditions can still lead healthy and fulfilling lives with the right care and support.

Airway Clearance Therapy

Airway clearance therapy can be an effective way to break up mucus in the airways. It works by using various techniques to loosen and remove mucus from the lungs, making it easier to cough up.

Some common techniques used in airway clearance therapy include:

Airway clearance therapy can be vital in managing respiratory conditions such as bronchiectasis and chronic bronchitis.

The SmartVest Airway Clearance System

The SmartVest Airway Clearance System works by actively managing mucus buildup to keep airways clear and protected from germs and bacteria that cause inflammation, infection, and lung damage.

SmartVest helps break this cycle by delivering repeated pulses of air that gently squeeze and release the upper chest wall and propel mucus upward, where it can be coughed out easier. It does so by delivering 360° chest wall coverage to target different areas of the lungs to loosen, thin, and move mucus.

On average, SmartVest also releases 91% of its air between compressions,9 giving patients more Breathing RoomTM to perform therapy and less pressure on their chest. And less pressure leads to a more comfortable therapy.

Additionally, SmartVest is proven to help reduce bronchiectasis-related exacerbations requiring hospitalization and can also help decrease antibiotic usage and improve lung stability.10

SmartVest user wearing device while reading tablet.

Is SmartVest Right for You?

With SmartVest, patients are able to manage their chronic symptoms on their schedule and breathe easier. 

Learn more about how SmartVest takes the pressure off  and find additional resources and clinical-evidence on the benefits of SmartVest.

Contact our Respiratory Therapists at 1.855.528.5690 to discuss any questions you may have about SmartVest or symptoms. 

Graphic icon of person contacting a respiratory therapist.


[1] American Lung Association. “Chronic Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[2] Cleveland Clinic. “Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[3] Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Chronic Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[4] Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Chronic Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[5] American Lung Association. “Chronic Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[6] American Lung Association. “Learn about Bronchiectasis.” Retrieved from

[7] American Lung Association. “Chronic Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[8] American Lung Association. “Chronic Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[9] Pokorney J. Comparison of Oscillatory Trough Pressure Generated by High Frequency Chest Wall Oscillation (HFCWO) Systems: A White Paper.

[10] Powner, J, et al. Employment of Algorithms of Care Including Chest Physiotherapy Results in Reduced Hospitalizations and Stability of Lung Function in Bronchiectasis. BMC Pulmonary Medicine, BioMed Central. 25 Apr. 2019.