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Bronchiolitis is a childhood disease that affects the lungs. It occurs when a virus enters the breathing system. The virus causes the tiny airways in the lungs to become swollen. As a result, a thick fluid called mucus collects in the airways. This makes it hard for air to flow freely in the lungs.
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Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus. There are several different types of virus that may cause it. The viruses are easily spread from person to person like a common cold . It spreads most often through coughs or sneezes which release droplets of moisture into the air. Breathing in the air can cause the infection in a noninfected person.
Bronchiolitis can affect anyone, but is most common in children under the age of 2 years old.
Other factors that may increase your risk of infection include:
- Season—winter months have highest risk
Factors that increase the risk in adults include:
- A weak immune system
- Exposure to toxic fumes
Children most at risk are those who:
- Were never breastfed
- Were born prematurely
- Are exposed to tobacco smoke
- Are often in groups of children (as in a day care) or live in crowded conditions
Symptoms of bronchiolitis occur in two stages:
During the first 2-3 days the child will probably have a:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Slight fever
During the next 2-3 days, the symptoms increase to include:
- Dry cough
- Red eyes
- Fast rate of breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Wheezing—a whistling noise that is louder when breathing out
- Bluish color in the skin, especially around the lips or nails
- Poor feeding
More serious symptoms may require care from your doctor. Call the doctor if your child:
- Is vomiting and can’t keep liquids down
- Is breathing very fast—more than 40 breaths in one minute
- Has bluish skin, especially around the lips or on the fingertips
- Has to sit up to breathe
- Was born prematurely or has a history of heart disease
- Appears dehydrated
You will be asked about your child's symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your child's bodily fluids will be tested. This can be done with:
- A test of a sample of mucus from the nose or throat
- Blood tests
Images may be taken of your child's chest. This can be done with a chest x-ray.
There is no medication to cure viral infections. The infection will usually clear on its own after a week to 10 days.
Treatment steps will focus on making your child more comfortable. These steps include:
- Encourage your child to drink clear liquids.
- Use a vaporizer in the bedroom.
- If your child is coughing and very congested, consider sitting in a steamy bathroom. Run hot water from the shower. Sit in the bathroom with your child until the coughing eases.
- Do not smoke around your child. Keep your child away from smoke.
- Consider acetaminophen if a fever is present. Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children or teens with a current or recent viral infection. This is because of the risk of Reye's syndrome . Ask your doctor which other medications are safe for your child.
- Your doctor may also prescribe an inhaled medication. This may include a bronchodilator or hypertonic saline. These medications can help open airways and ease breathing.
In severe cases, medical treatment may be needed. Your child may need to be admitted to the hospital.
There is no vaccine to prevent bronchiolitis. There are some medications that may lessen the risk of bronchiolitis by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) . RSV is a virus which causes more than half of all cases of bronchiolitis. This preventative medication is usually given to high-risk babies. It is given monthly during high risk RSV season.
Proper handwashing habits can help to prevent the spread of illness. Make sure to wash your hands before touching your child. Also wash your hands after being in contact with an infected person.
Bronchiolitis can spread easily from one person to another. Children should be kept home until they are well. Teach your children to cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or upper sleeve when they cough or sneeze.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
The Canadian Lung Association
Caring for Kids—The Canadian Paediatric Society
Bronchiolitis. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/bronchiolitis.html . Updated February 2014. Accessed September 8, 2014.
Bronchiolitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 22, 2014. Accessed September 8, 2014.
Gadomski AM, Bhasale aL: Bronchodilators for bronchiolitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006:CD001266.
Smyth RL, Openshaw PJ. Bronchiolitis. Lancet. 2006;368:312-322.
Steiner RWP. Treating acute bronchiolitis associated with RSV. Am Fam Physician. 2004;69:325-330.
8/10/2007 according to the following study, as cited by http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Corneli HM, Zorc JJ, Majahan P, et al. A multicenter, randomized, controlled trial of dexamethasone for bronchiolitis. N Engl J Med. 2007;357:331-339.
2/5/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Panickar J, Lakhanpaul M, Lambert PC, et al. Oral prednisolone for preschool children with acute virus-induced wheezing. N Engl J Med. 2009;360:329-338.
- Reviewer: Kari Kassir, MD
- Review Date: 08/2014
- Update Date: 09/08/2014