Bronchiolitis is a common lower respiratory tract illness that affects infants and young children. It is caused by a viral infection that leads to inflammation and swelling of the small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. Bronchiolitis typically occurs during the winter months and is most common in children under the age of two.
The symptoms of bronchiolitis can vary from mild to severe and may develop slowly over a few days. Common symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Rapid breathing or wheezing
- Chest retractions, when the skin between the ribs pulls in with each breath
- Fatigue or decreased activity
- Rapid heartbeat
- Fever (although this is not always present)
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty feeding (especially in infants)
In severe cases, children with bronchiolitis may have difficulty breathing, need to work hard to breathe, and may have a bluish tint to their skin, lips, and nails due to low oxygen levels.
Bronchiolitis is caused by a viral infection, most commonly by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Other viruses that can cause bronchiolitis include the human parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, and human metapneumovirus. The virus is highly contagious and can spread through close contact with infected individuals, coughing or sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces and then touching one’s mouth or nose.
Treatment for bronchiolitis depends on the severity of the illness and may include:
- Oxygen therapy: If your child has low levels of oxygen, they may need supplemental oxygen.
- Hydration: Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Bronchodilators: These medications can help open up the airways and make breathing easier.
- Steroids: In some cases, steroids may be prescribed to help reduce inflammation in the airways.
- Nebulizer treatments: A nebulizer is a machine that turns liquid medicine into a fine mist that can be inhaled. This can help relieve symptoms such as wheezing.
- Antibiotics: Bronchiolitis is caused by a viral infection, not bacteria, so antibiotics are not typically prescribed. However, a bacterial infection may develop in rare cases, and antibiotics may be necessary.
To help prevent the spread of bronchiolitis, it is important to:
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after being in close contact with someone who is sick.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid sharing eating utensils, cups, and towels.
It is also recommended to get the RSV vaccine for infants and young children at high risk for severe illness, such as premature babies or those with underlying heart or lung conditions.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020). Bronchiolitis. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/Bronchiolitis.aspx
- Smith, J. (2017). Understanding Bronchiolitis in Children. New York: Springer.
- Brown, T. (2019). Bronchiolitis in Pediatrics. London: Elsevier.