What Is Bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis (brong-kee-oh-LYE-tiss) is an infection of the respiratory tract. It happens when tiny airways called bronchioles (BRONG-kee-olz) get infected with a virus. They swell and fill with mucus, which can make breathing hard.

Bronchiolitis is more common during the winter months. Most cases can be managed at home.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Bronchiolitis?

The first symptoms of bronchiolitis are usually the same as those of a cold:

  • stuffy nose and congestion
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • fever

Usually, symptoms get better on their own. But sometimes the cough might get worse and a child may start wheezing or have noisy breathing.

Who Gets Bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis:

  • most often affects infants and young children because their small airways can easily get blocked
  • is most common during the first 2 years of life, especially in very young babies
  • is more common in premature babies, children with lung or heart problems, and kids with weak immune systems

Kids who go to childcare, have siblings in school, or are around secondhand smoke have a higher risk for bronchiolitis. Older kids and adults can get bronchiolitis, but the infection usually is mild.

Bronchiolitis is an infection of the respiratory tract. Tiny airways called bronchioles swell and fill with mucus, which can make breathing hard.

What Causes Bronchiolitis?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of bronchiolitis. Sometimes, the common cold and the flu also can cause it.

How Is Bronchiolitis Diagnosed?

When they suspect bronchiolitis, doctors listen to the child's chest and check oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter.

Usually, no tests are needed. The doctor may use a swab to get a sample of mucus from the nose for testing. This helps with identifying the type of virus causing the problem.

A chest X-ray might be done if the child's oxygen level is low or the doctor suspects pneumonia.

How Is Bronchiolitis Treated?

Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and don't need specific medical treatment. Antibiotics can't help because viruses cause bronchiolitis. Antibiotics work only against bacterial infections.

Treatment focuses on easing symptoms. Kids with bronchiolitis need time to recover and plenty of fluids. Make sure your child gets enough to drink by offering fluids in small amounts often.

You can use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier in your child's room to help loosen mucus in the airway and relieve cough and congestion. Clean it as recommended to prevent buildup of mold or bacteria. Avoid hot-water and steam humidifiers, which can cause scalding.

To clear nasal congestion, try a nasal aspirator and saline (saltwater) nose drops. This can be especially helpful before feeding and sleeping.

Talk to the doctor before giving your child any medicine. For babies who are old enough, you may be able to give medicine to help with fever and make your child more comfortable. Follow the package directions about how much to give and how often. But cough and cold medicines should not be given to any babies or young kids. When in doubt, call your doctor.

Babies who have trouble breathing, are dehydrated, or seem very tired should be checked by a doctor. Those with serious symptoms may need care in a hospital to get fluids and, sometimes, help with breathing.

Is Bronchiolitis Contagious?

Viruses that cause bronchiolitis spread easily through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Germs can stay on hands, toys, doorknobs, tissues, and other surfaces. People can be contagious for several days or even weeks.

How Long Does Bronchiolitis Last?

Bronchiolitis usually lasts about 1–2 weeks. Sometimes it can take several weeks for symptoms to go away.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Bronchiolitis often is a mild illness. But sometimes it can cause severe symptoms. When it does, kids need treatment in a hospital.

Get medical care right away if a baby:

  • has fast, shallow breathing and you can see the belly moving up and down quickly
  • has labored breathing, when the areas below the ribs, between the ribs, and/or in the neck sink in as a child breathes in
  • has flaring nostrils
  • is very fussy and can't be comforted
  • is very tired or won't wake up for feedings
  • has a poor appetite or isn't feeding well
  • fewer wet diapers or peeing less than usual
  • has a blue color to the lips, tongue, or nails

You know your child best. Call your doctor right away if something doesn't seem right.

Can Bronchiolitis Be Prevented?

Washing hands well and often is the best way to prevent the spread of viruses that can cause bronchiolitis and other infections.

Also:

  • Keep infants away from anyone who has a cold or cough.
  • Keep kids away from secondhand smoke.
  • Keep toys and surfaces clean.
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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