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Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in infants and young children. It happens when the smallest air passages in the lungs (bronchioles) become inflamed and clogged with mucus. This makes it harder for the child to breathe.
Bronchiolitis is usually caused by a virus. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause. Young children under age 2, particularly those between 3 months and 6 months old, get this illness most often. It peaks in winter and early spring.
Symptoms of bronchiolitis
The first signs of bronchiolitis look like the symptoms of a common cold. Your child may have a runny nose, cough, and a slight fever for a few days. After that, your child may begin to breathe fast and wheeze (make a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing).
Call your doctor if:
- Your child is vomiting and can’t keep liquids down.
- Your child is breathing very fast, more than 40 breaths in 1 minute.
- You can see your child’s skin pull in between the ribs with each breath, or your child has to sit up to be able to breathe.
- Your child has had heart disease or was born prematurely. In this case, call the doctor at the first signs of this illness.
If your child’s lips or fingertips look bluish, he or she may not be getting enough oxygen. Seek medical care or go to the emergency room right away.
What causes bronchiolitis?
Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause. The virus is spread when someone infected with the illness comes into direct contact with your child. This often happens when a sick person sneezes or coughs near your child. It can also happen when your child touches toys or other objects that a sick person had touched.
How is bronchiolitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you about your child’s symptoms. He or she will examine your child and listen to their lungs. The doctor will check to see if your child is getting enough oxygen. They can get a sample of mucus or discharge from the nose and test it for RSV. They may also order a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia.
Can bronchiolitis be prevented or avoided?
RSV and other viruses that lead to bronchiolitis are common and spread easily. Older children and adults get the viruses, too. But they usually don’t get as sick as younger children. The best way to prevent bronchiolitis is to keep your child from catching a virus.
- Keep your child away from other children or people with colds or other illnesses.
- Stay away from crowded areas where viruses can spread easily. This could include elevators or shopping malls.
- Wash your hands and your child’s hands frequently.
- Regularly disinfect surfaces, toys, and objects in your home.
If your child has bronchiolitis, keep them home until the cough is almost gone. Make sure to wash your hands after you take care of your sick child.
Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus. That means antibiotics and other medicines won’t help cure it. It usually takes 2-3 weeks for the illness to run its course. In the meantime, symptoms can usually be treated at home.
If your child is very sick, your doctor may suggest putting him or her in the hospital. This could happen if he or she is working hard to breathe, isn’t getting enough oxygen, or is dehydrated. Your child can get extra oxygen and fluids in the hospital. Doctors can do deep suction on his or her airways to clear mucus from their lungs. Most children who are hospitalized for bronchiolitis go home in a few days.
Living with bronchiolitis
In most cases, you can treat your child’s symptoms at home.
- Give your child plenty of liquids. Don’t worry if he or she doesn’t feel like eating solid foods.
- Use saline drops and an aspirator to remove mucus from the nose.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer in the bedroom while your child is sleeping.
- Sit in a steamy bathroom with your child. Run hot water in the shower or bathtub and close the door.
- Ask your doctor if you can give your child acetaminophen (such as Infants’ Tylenol) if he or she has a fever. Don’t give your child aspirin. Aspirin has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a rare disease of the brain and liver.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How can I make my child more comfortable?
- How long will my child be contagious?
- Should I isolate my child from my other children as long as he/she is sick?
- How long should I keep my child home from daycare?
- If my child’s symptoms get worse, when should I call my doctor?
- My child has asthma. Could this trigger an asthma attack?
- Will a nebulizer help my child?
- Are there any medicines I can give my child?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.