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What is bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection. It causes inflammation and congestion in the small airways (bronchioles) of the lung. Bronchiolitis is almost caused by a virus. Typically, the peak time for bronchiolitis is during the winter months.

Bronchiolitis starts with symptoms, which are similar to those of common cold but then progressing to coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breath sometimes. Symptoms of bronchiolitis can last for several days to weeks, even a month.

Most children get better with care at home. A very small percentage of children require hospitalization.

Complications of severe bronchiolitis may include:

  • Blue lips or skin (cyanosis). Cyanosis is caused by the lack of oxygen.
  • Pauses in breathing (apnea). Apnea is most likely to occur in premature infants and in infants within the first two months of life.
  • Dehydration.
  • Low oxygen levels and respiratory failure.

How common is bronchiolitis?

This health condition is extremely common. It commonly affects young children and infants. It can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of bronchiolitis?

The common symptoms of bronchiolitis are:

  • Runny nose;
  • Stuffy nose;
  • Cough;
  • Slight fever (not always present);
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Whistling noise;
  • Ear infection (otitis media) in many infants.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Vomiting;
  • Audible wheezing sounds;
  • Breathing very fast — more than 60 breaths a minute (tachypnea) — and shallowly;
  • Labored breathing — the ribs seem to suck inward when infant inhales;
  • Sluggish or lethargic appearance;
  • Refusal to drink enough, or breathing too fast to eat or drink;
  • Skin turning blue, especially the lips and fingernails (cyanosis).

This is especially important if your child is younger than 12 weeks old or has other risk factors for bronchiolitis — including premature birth or a heart or lung condition.


What causes bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis occurs when a virus infects the bronchioles, which are the smallest airways in your lungs. The infection makes the bronchioles swell and become inflamed. Mucus collects in these airways, which makes it difficult for air to flow freely in and out of the lungs.

Most cases of bronchiolitis are caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a common virus that infects every child by the age of 2. Outbreaks of the RSV infection occur every winter. Also, bronchiolitis can be caused by other viruses, including viruses cause the flu or the common cold. Infants can be reinfected with RSV because at least two strains exist.

The viruses causing bronchiolitis are easily spread. You can contract them through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks. You can also get them by touching shared objects — such as utensils, towels or toys — and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for bronchiolitis?

There are many risk factors for bronchiolitis, such as:

  • Infants younger than 3 months;
  • Premature birth;
  • An underlying heart or lung condition;
  • A depressed immune system;
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke;
  • Never having been breastfeeding because breastfeeding babies receive benefits from the mother;
  • Contact with multiple children, such as in a child care setting;
  • Living in a crowded environment;
  • Having siblings who attend school or child care and bring home the infection.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is bronchiolitis diagnosed?

The doctor can usually identify the problem by observing your child and listening to his or her lungs with a stethoscope. If your child is at risk of severe bronchiolitis, your doctor may order tests, including:

  • Chest X-ray.Your doctor may request a chest X-ray to look for signs of pneumonia.
  • Viral testing.Your doctor may collect a sample of mucus from your child to test for the virus causing bronchiolitis. This is done using a swab that’s gently inserted into the nose.
  • Blood tests.Occasionally, blood tests might be used to check your child’s white blood cell count. A blood test can also determine whether the level of oxygen has decreased in your child’s bloodstream.

Your doctor may also ask you about signs of dehydration, especially if your child has been refusing to drink or eat or has been vomiting. Signs of dehydration include sunken eyes, dry mouth and skin, sluggishness, and little or no urination.

How is bronchiolitis treated?

Home treatment to manage the symptoms of bronchiolitis is usually 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. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome or a serious illness. An over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not recommended. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

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.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage bronchiolitis?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with bronchiolitis:

  • Humidify the air. If the air in your child’s room is dry, a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer can moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds.
  • Keep your child upright. Being in an upright position usually makes breathing easier.
  • Have your child drink. To prevent dehydration, give your child plenty of clear fluids to drink, such as water or juice.
  • Try saline nose drops to ease congestion. You can purchase these drops over-the-counter (OTC).
  • Use OTC pain relievers. OTC pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) may help relieve a sore throat and improve your child’s ability to drink fluids. Never give your child aspirin. Don’t give OTC cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 2.
  • Maintain a smoke-free environment.Smoke can aggravate symptoms of respiratory infections.
  • Wash your hands often to prevent spreading the disease.
  • Avoid contact with other children who have bronchiolitis or upper respiratory infections.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

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