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Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 22.02.2023 | 2 min read

Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection that happens in young children, typically those under 2 years old, and is caused by a virus. The bronchioles are small airways in the lungs, branching off the two main bronchi, and the ‘itis’ part of bronchiolitis means inflammation, so bronchiolitis is inflammation and congestion of these small airways. 

Symptoms of bronchiolitis start off similarly to a cold with a blocked and runny nose, cough, and possibly fever. Children can also sound quite wheezy. 

Bronchiolitis is most commonly caused by a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) during the winter months and often it gets better by itself. In a small number of cases, hospital admission may be required.

Is my child at risk of bronchiolitis?

Kids younger than 12 weeks are most at risk because their immune system is still underdeveloped. Other risk factors include babies who are born early or have an underlying condition of the heart or lungs. Kids who are exposed to smoke are also at risk of this lung infection. Breastfeeding for more than 2 months is protective against bronchiolitis.

How does the infection spread?

Viruses spread through respiratory droplets that can be passed from one person to another through coughing, sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces. The virus then enters through the mouth or nose and travels into the breathing system, causing the bronchioles to become inflamed and overproduce mucus, leading to congestion and blockage. Bronchiolitis typically lasts two to three weeks, and a child can remain infected up to three weeks later.

When should I see my doctor?

Contact your doctor right away if your child is having difficulty breathing: if breathing becomes fast, labored, or very noisy. Suppose their breathing causes them difficulty eating or drinking. In that case, they are drinking less than half of what they usually drink, their temperature is not improving with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, they become drowsy or you notice a blue tinge around their lips or fingernails, you should seek immediate medical attention.

How is it treated?

Bronchiolitis often gets better on its own without any treatment and typically lasts two to three weeks. A virus often causes bronchiolitis, and therefore, antibiotics don't help, they only fight off a bacterial infection. 

Some simple home treatments can be done that can be very effective. Ensuring your child drinks plenty of fluid is essential to avoid dehydration - they need more fluids on board when they're fighting an infection, they have a fever, or it's hot weather.

If your child is quite congested, then using a humidifier will help moisten the airways and improve coughing symptoms. Using saline nasal drops can also be effective and safe. Keeping children upright as much as possible is beneficial.

For those under one year old, only 3 in every 100 children end up needing hospital admission. So, if symptoms become severe, your child may need to be admitted to the hospital for oxygen and fluid intake support. Oxygen is delivered via a mask, and fluid is given through a vein. In extreme cases, an invasive procedure may be performed to help with their breathing. 

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