Bronchiolitis is a common viral lower respiratory tract infection that affects babies and young children under two years old. Most cases of bronchiolitis aren't serious, but sometimes a more serious infection such as pneumonia may be present. See section on ‘when to seek medical help’.
Symptoms of bronchiolitis
Most cases are mild and clear up without the need for treatment within two to three weeks. However, some children have severe symptoms and need hospital treatment.
Further symptoms then usually develop over the next few days, including:
- a temperature (fever) (although may not be present and is rarely over 39°C)
- a dry and persistent cough
- difficulty feeding
- rapid or noisy breathing (wheezing)
When to seek medical help
Most cases of bronchiolitis aren't serious, but sometimes a more serious infection such as pneumonia may be present. You should contact your GP if:
- you're worried about your child
- they are having some difficulty breathing
- they have reduced fluid intake and you think they may be dehydrated
- they have a persistent high temperature
- they seem very tired or irritable
Your GP will usually be able to diagnose bronchiolitis based on your child's symptoms and by examining their breathing.
Dial 999 for an ambulance if:
- your baby is having severe difficulty breathing and is pale or sweaty
- your baby's tongue or lips are blue (cyanosis)
- there are long pauses in your baby's breathing
Cause of bronchiolitis
Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus known as the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). It is spread through tiny droplets of liquid from the coughs or sneezes of someone who's infected.
The infection causes the smallest airways in the lungs (the bronchioles) to become infected and inflamed. The inflammation reduces the amount of air entering the lungs. This makes it difficult to breathe.
Bronchiolitis most commonly affects children aged less than 1 year. By the age of two, almost all infants will have been infected with RSV. Up to half of these will have had bronchiolitis.
Bronchiolitis is most widespread during the winter (from November to March). It's possible to get bronchiolitis more than once during the same season.
There's no medication to kill the virus that causes bronchiolitis. The infection usually clears up within two weeks without the need for treatment. Most children can be cared for at home in the same way that you'd treat a cold.
Always check the instructions on the bottle or packet carefully, and never exceed the recommended dose. Never give aspirin to children under the age of 16.
About 2-3 per cent of babies who develop bronchiolitis during the first year of life will need to be admitted to hospital because they develop more serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing. This is more common in premature babies (born before week 37 of pregnancy) and those born with a heart or lung condition.
It's difficult to prevent bronchiolitis. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your child's risk of catching it and help prevent the virus spreading. You should:
- wash your hands and your child's hands often
- wash or wipe toys and surfaces regularly
- keep infected children at home until their symptoms have improved
- keep newborn babies away from people with colds or flu
- prevent your child being exposed to tobacco smoke
Some children who are at high risk of developing severe bronchiolitis may require treatment to prevent the infection, or to limit the severity of the infection.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
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