BACKGROUND: There are few published data on the correlation between the clinical findings in subjects with chronic sputum production and the appearances on high resolution computed tomographic (HRCT) scans of the chest. METHODS: HRCT scanning of the chest was performed on 40 subjects with chronic sputum production. Three readers independently reported the scans for the presence or absence of bronchiectasis and the extent of bronchiectasis on the basis of the percentage of involved bronchi in each lobe. Relationships were sought between these findings and the clinical history, physical examination, and laboratory investigations. RESULTS: HRCT scanning showed that 27 subjects had bronchiectasis. Of the clinical features only the continual production of purulent sputum and childhood pertussis were associated with bronchiectasis. There was a positive correlation between the extent of bronchiectasis and dyspnoea, and a negative correlation with forced expiratory volume in one second but not with forced vital capacity. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that, in subjects with chronic sputum production, only a few clinical features show any correlation with the presence or extent of bronchiectasis as visualised on HRCT scans.