Bronchiolitis is a common infection affecting the lower respiratory tract that predominantly affects babies and infants younger than two years old. Fortunately, it is rarely serious. Children with bronchiolitis usually experience mild symptoms and fully recover within a few weeks without any medical intervention. However, in some cases, the symptoms of bronchiolitis can be more severe, and hospital admission may be required.
At first, the symptoms of bronchiolitis mimic those of a common cold, with the child developing a runny nose and cough. Other symptoms develop gradually, including a low-grade fever that rarely rises too high. A persistent dry cough is also common. Affected children may also have trouble eating or taking food and may sound wheezy when they breathe.
Causes of Bronchiolitis
Bronchiolitis is a common viral infection caused by the respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. This virus spreads easily through droplets in the air when an infected child coughs or sneezes near other children or babies. The infection takes hold in the bronchioles of the lungs, making them inflamed and irritated. This inflammation causes the wheezy breathing and persistent cough.
People Most Commonly Affected
Bronchiolitis is very common. Almost all small children are infected with the virus at some point, although only around half will develop symptoms. It is most prevalent in babies between 3-6 months, although newborns can also contract it. Almost all cases of bronchiolitis occur in infants under the age of two.
Worst Time for Contracting Bronchiolitis
Children can contract bronchiolitis at any time of year. However, as with colds, they are far more likely to develop the condition in colder temperatures. The worst months are between November and March (in the northern hemisphere). Some babies may contract more than one bout in a single winter season.
There is currently no medicine available to kill the bronchiolitis virus. Fortunately, most cases clear up on their own within a couple of weeks. Parents can usually care for a child with bronchiolitis at home. It’s important to ensure sick babies drink plenty of fluids while they are recovering, to avoid dehydration. Over-the-counter painkillers can also help ease soreness and reduce fever.
Hospitalization for Bronchiolitis
Fortunately, most children with bronchiolitis will not need any specialist hospital care. However, a small number will develop severe symptoms requiring treatment. The most common symptom that results in hospitalization is difficulty breathing. Certain groups more likely to need hospitalization, such as those born prematurely or with an existing lung or heart issues.
Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to prevent a child from catching bronchiolitis. However, observing proper hygiene practices can help prevent the virus from spreading. Thoroughly washing hands, toys, and any surfaces the child or baby regularly touches can prevent the spread of the virus from the hands to the mouth. It is also a good idea to keep infected children at home until they recover, to protect other children.
A doctor can diagnose bronchiolitis through symptoms and by listening to the child’s chest to determine difficulty breathing. If these considerations do not make the diagnosis clear, the doctor may order blood or urine tests, sputum samples, or check oxygen levels in the child’s blood using a fingertip monitor.
In rare cases, children may struggle to drink due to inflammation and become dehydrated as a result. It is also possible for children with bronchiolitis to develop severe breathing difficulties or even respiratory failure, which means they need assistance to breathe. When this happens, the skin of the face may turn blue. Severe respiratory failure is another possible complication.
When to Seek Help
Urgent medical attention is required if a child with bronchiolitis is unable to eat or drink enough or becomes dehydrated. If the baby or child is urinating less than usual, this is also a warning sign. A high fever indicates a need for medical attention, and parents should call an ambulance if the child develops difficulty breathing.