Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in young children and infants. It causes inflammation and congestion in the small airways (bronchioles) of the lung. Bronchiolitis is almost always caused by a virus. Typically, the peak time for bronchiolitis is during the winter months.
Bronchiolitis starts out with symptoms similar to those of a common cold, but then progresses to coughing, wheezing and sometimes difficulty breathing. Symptoms of bronchiolitis can last for several days to weeks.
Most children get better with care at home. A small percentage of children require hospitalization
For the first few days, the signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of a cold:
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Slight fever (not always present)
After this, there may be a week or more of difficulty breathing or a whistling noise when the child breathes out (wheezing).
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.
The viruses that cause 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.
Bronchiolitis typically affects children under the age of 2 years. Infants younger than 3 months of age are at greatest risk of getting bronchiolitis because their lungs and immune systems aren’t yet fully developed.
Other factors that are linked with an increased risk of bronchiolitis in infants and with more-severe cases include:
- Premature birth
- Underlying heart or lung condition
- Depressed immune system
- Exposure to tobacco smoke
- Never having been breast-fed (breast-fed babies receive immune benefits from the mother)
- Contact with multiple children, such as in a child care setting
- Spending time in crowded environments
- Having siblings who attend school or get child care services and bring home the infection
- Limit contact with people who have a fever or cold. If your child is a newborn, especially a premature newborn, avoid exposure to people with colds, especially in the first two months of life.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces. Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that people frequently touch, such as toys and doorknobs. This is especially important if a family member is sick.
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue. Then throw away the tissue and wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Use your own drinking glass. Don’t share glasses with others, especially if someone in your family is ill.
- Wash hands often. Frequently wash your own hands and those of your child. Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy for yourself and your child when you’re away from home.
- Breast-feed. Respiratory infections are significantly less common in breast-fed babies.