A Dickensian lung disease is on the rise among British pensioners, experts have warned.
Bronchiectasis occurs when the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened, leading to a build-up of excess mucus.
People can become more vulnerable to infection and symptoms include a persistent cough that usually brings up phlegm, and breathlessness.
The disease is incurable and although infections can be treated with antibiotics, there are concerns that the bacteria is becoming resistant to drugs.
Experts agree that bronchiectasis may occur in people who suffered an infection in childhood such as pneumonia or whooping cough, which damage the lung.
Underlying problems with the immune system and allergies are also thought to play a role.
NHS data shows that more than 12,000 people were admitted to hospital in England during 2013/14 with bronchiectasis. Most of these were aged over 60.
Now new research has found that bronchiectasis – often labelled a disease of the past – is becoming more common, especially among older people.
Cases of bronchiectasis have doubled in just under a decade among those aged 70 and over, it found.
The disease affected approximately 0.6% of people aged 70 or over in 2004, but this increased to 1.2% in 2013.
The new research was carried out by experts at University College London (UCL), University College London Hospitals (UCLH) NHS Foundation Trust, Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Published in the European Respiratory Journal, the team used GP records from 14 million patients from across the UK to identify those with bronchiectasis.
The results showed the condition particularly common in women and those in more affluent groups.
Jeremy Brown, professor of respiratory infection at UCL, said: “Bronchiectasis is historically associated with untreated chest infections when antibiotics were not readily available.
“We found that the disease has had a resurgence in recent years, particularly among more well-off members of society. This could be partly down to improved diagnosis in these groups but, whatever the reason, we need better treatment options for patients.”
The study found that 42% of people with bronchiectasis also had asthma and 36% had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Some 6.9% of bronchiectasis patients also had HIV – a much higher proportion than expected.
“The high prevalence of bronchiectasis in people with asthma and COPD is an important finding,” said Dr Jennifer Quint, who carried out the study while at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and UCLH, and now works at Imperial College London.
“Whether the diagnosis of bronchiectasis precedes or follows the diagnosis of asthma or COPD is important to investigate next as it may help to guide longer-term management in these patients.”