Bronchiolitis is a common viral infection that causes inflammation of the small airway passages in the lungs (bronchioles). It’s most common in babies aged under 12 months and generally happens more often in winter. See your doctor if you think your child has bronchiolitis symptoms.
Causes of bronchiolitis
Bronchiolitis can be caused by many different viruses, but it’s most often caused by a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This virus spreads through sneezing, coughing or personal contact.
When bronchiolitis starts, bronchiolitis symptoms look a bit like a cold. They include a runny nose and sneezing, a mild cough and sometimes a fever.
As bronchiolitis develops, your child’s breathing might become fast and laboured and her cough might get more severe.
You might notice signs that your child is working hard to breathe – for example, his ribs moving in and out more than usual, and his nostrils flaring. You might also hear a high-pitched whistling sound called a ‘wheeze’ when your child breathes out. In severe cases, your child’s lips might look blue.
Your child might be hard to feed and might get quite upset.
Bronchiolitis is usually at its worst on the second or third day, but it can last for up to 10 days.
Bronchiolitis is most common in babies and young children.
Although it has similar symptoms to asthma, bronchiolitis is a different condition and needs different treatment.
When to see your doctor about bronchiolitis symptoms
Go to the doctor if your child:
- is breathing very fast or has irregular breathing
- is coughing and distressed
- has difficulty feeding
- is changing colour in the face when she coughs.
Take your child to hospital immediately if he becomes short of breath, has difficulty breathing or looks blue around the lips.
Treatment for bronchiolitis
If your child’s bronchiolitis is mild, you’ll be able to manage it at home.
Give your child smaller but more frequent feeds – for example, feed your baby every hour rather than every three hours. Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids – for example, breastmilk or formula. Give your child paracetamol according to directions if she has a fever. Ensure that your child gets as much rest as possible.
Make sure your child is in a smoke-free environment. Also avoid contact with other babies in the first few days, because bronchiolitis is an infectious disease.
You child doesn’t need antibiotics, because bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, and antibiotics don’t cure viruses.
If your child’s bronchiolitis is more serious, he might need to go to hospital. This is usually because he isn’t feeding properly, has become dehydrated, or needs oxygen. Your doctor will tell you whether your child needs to go to hospital.
Your child might need fluids via a nose tube or a drip into a vein in her arm. Sometimes your child might be given anti-asthma medication like Ventolin®. This might help some children breath more easily, but it’s generally not effective in children younger than 12 months of age.