What is bronchiolitis?


Bronchiolitis in children: Overview

Bronchiolitis is a common respiratory illness in babies and very young children. It happens when the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs get inflamed. This can make your child cough or wheeze.

It can start like a cold with a runny nose, congestion, and a cough. In many cases, there is a fever for a few days. The congestion can last a few weeks. The cough can last even longer. Most children feel better in 1 to 2 weeks.

Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus. This means that antibiotics won't help it get better.

Most of the time, you can take care of your child at home. But if your child is not getting better or has a hard time breathing, they may need to be in the hospital.


Bronchiolitis is an inflammation of the small air passages (bronchioles), usually caused by a virus (respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is one such virus).

Bronchiolitis affects infants. It is the leading cause of serious lower respiratory illness.

Symptoms of bronchiolitis include labored, rapid breathing with wheezing and a cough that sounds "tight." If the infection becomes severe, the infant's breathing rate may increase noticeably.

If severe difficulty breathing occurs, immediate medical attention is needed.

What are the symptoms of bronchiolitis?

Symptoms of bronchiolitis include runny nose, cough, and fever. After a few days, your child may experience shortness of breath and/or breathing that is rapid and labored with wheezing. A severe infection in infants may cause a noticeably increased breathing rate.

If your child has heart disease or was born prematurely, call your doctor at the first sign of bronchiolitis.

Symptoms of bronchiolitis are the worst in the first 5 days. Most children get better in 1 to 2 weeks.

How is bronchiolitis treated?

Home treatment to manage the symptoms of bronchiolitis is usually all that is needed. Have your child drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration. If your baby has a stuffy nose, use a suction bulb to remove mucus. Fever medicine (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen) may help reduce fever discomfort. Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not recommended. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome, a serious illness.

The doctor may suggest bronchodilator medicine if your child has shown the tendency to have allergic reactions (atopy). In severe cases, your child may need to stay in the hospital or get extra oxygen.

How can you prevent bronchiolitis?

It is common for children to get respiratory problems (such as bronchiolitis caused by a viral infection), because they are often exposed to people who have infections to which they have not built up immunity. Bronchiolitis is spread just like a cold. To prevent bronchiolitis:

  • Avoid contact with other children who have bronchiolitis or upper respiratory infections. If there is an ill child in the home, separate them from other children, if possible. Put the child in a room alone to sleep. If your child has bronchiolitis, keep them home from school or day care until they get better.
  • Wash your hands often to prevent spreading the disease. Hand-washing removes the germs on your hands and helps stop the spread of germs to your child when you touch your child or touch an object they might touch.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products around your child. Secondhand smoke irritates the mucous membranes in your child's nose, sinuses, and lungs and increases the risk for respiratory infections.

Sometimes medicines are used to help prevent respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections in babies and children who are at risk for problems from RSV.

How is bronchiolitis diagnosed?

A doctor may diagnose bronchiolitis based on a medical history, your child's symptoms, and a physical exam. Testing is usually not needed if your doctor suspects the bronchiolitis is caused by RSV.

How can you care for your child who has bronchiolitis?

There are things you can do to help your child. Have your child drink enough fluids to stay hydrated. Ask your doctor if you can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for discomfort. To avoid spreading the virus, keep your child away from other children and wash your hands and your child's hands often.

What causes bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, especially respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and frequently occurs in the late fall to early spring.

What is bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is an infection of the bronchioles, the small air passages in the lungs. It is common in infants and is the leading cause of serious lower respiratory illness.

Bronchiolitis in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has severe trouble breathing. Signs may include the chest sinking in, using belly muscles to breathe, or nostrils flaring while your child is struggling to breathe.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has more breathing problems or is breathing faster.
  • You can see your child's skin around the ribs or the neck (or both) sink in deeply when they take a breath.
  • Your child's breathing problems make it hard to eat or drink.
  • Your child's face, hands, and feet look a little gray or purple.
  • Your child has a new or higher fever.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child is not getting better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.