Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the small air passages in the lungs (bronchioles). It’s most common in babies under 6-12 months of age. It generally occurs in epidemics during the winter months.
Bronchiolitis is usually caused by a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is spread by sneezing, coughing or personal contact.
The onset of the illness is a bit like a cold, with a runny nose, sneezing and possibly a mild fever. A cough might develop, and your child’s breathing might become rapid and laboured. You might notice signs that your child is working hard to breathe (for example, his ribs are moving in and out more than usual, and his nostrils are flaring). You might hear a high whistling sound called a ‘wheeze’ when your child breathes out. Your child might be difficult to feed and he could get quite distressed. In severe cases, your child might look blue around the lips.
Bronchiolitis is more common in babies and younger children. It has similar symptoms to asthma, but it’s a different condition and requires different treatment.
Bronchiolitis can last for 7-10 days, and the second and third days of the illness are usually the worst.
When to see your doctor
Go to the doctor if your child:
- is coughing and distressed
- has difficulty feeding.
Take your child to hospital immediately if she becomes short of breath, has difficulty breathing or looks blue around the lips.
If your child’s bronchiolitis is mild, you can manage it at home. Offer him smaller but more frequent feeds (for example, feed your baby every hour rather than every three hours), and make sure that he drinks plenty of fluids (for example, breastmilk or formula). Give your child paracetamol according to directions if he has a fever. Ensure that your child rests as much 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.
Antibiotics aren’t normally given because bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, and antibiotics don’t cure viruses.
If your child’s bronchiolitis is more serious, she might need to be admitted to hospital. This is usually because she’s not feeding properly and has become dehydrated, or might need oxygen. Your doctor will decide if this is necessary. Your child might need to be given fluids via a nasogastric tube or a drip. Sometimes anti-asthma medication (ventolin) might be given. It might help some children to breath more easily, but generally it’s not effective in children younger than 12 months of age.