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What is bronchiolitis?
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 the winter and the early spring.
What are the 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).
Contact your healthcare provider 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, contact the healthcare provider at the first signs of this illness.
If your child’s skin develops a bluish color, especially around the lips or in the fingertips, it may be a sign that they are not getting enough oxygen. Seek medical care or go to the emergency room right away.
How is bronchiolitis diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask you about your child’s symptoms. They will examine your child and listen to their lungs. The healthcare provider will check to see if your child is getting enough oxygen. They may 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.
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 healthcare provider may suggest putting them in the hospital. This could happen if they are working hard to breathe, aren’t getting enough oxygen, or are dehydrated. Your child can get extra oxygen and fluids in the hospital. 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 they don’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.
- If your child is coughing hard and having trouble breathing, run hot water in the shower or bathtub to steam up the bathroom and sit in there with your child.
- Check with your healthcare provider if it is okay to give your child acetaminophen (some brand names: Children’s or Infants’ Tylenol) if they have a fever. Don’t give your child aspirin. Aspirin has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a rare disease of the brain and liver.
What will my healthcare provider do for my child?
Your healthcare provider will check your child for signs of dehydration (not enough liquids in his or her body). Your healthcare provider will also check to see if your child is getting enough oxygen and may want to check your child for pneumonia. Sometimes, healthcare providers give children a liquid medicine to help with the cough. Your healthcare provider may want to see your child again in 24 hours.
If your child is really working hard to breathe, your healthcare provider may suggest putting them in the hospital. Your child can get extra oxygen while in the hospital. Your child can also get extra liquids through the veins (intravenous fluids), which will help prevent dehydration.
Will my other children catch bronchiolitis?
Bronchiolitis is spread just like a cold, through close contact with saliva or mucus, but older children usually don’t get as sick as younger children do.
You can help prevent spreading this disease by keeping your sick child home until the cough is almost gone. Make sure to wash your hands after you take care of your sick child to avoid spreading the virus to others.