Bronchiolitis is a childhood disease that affects the lungs. It occurs when a virus enters the breathing system and causes the tiny airways in the lungs to become swollen. As a result, a thick fluid called mucus collects in the airways and makes it hard for air to flow freely in the lungs. Usually, the infection goes away after 7-10 days. Some children show very mild symptoms, but in others, the disease can be severe. Older children are less at risk, and if they get bronchiolitis, they don’t get as sick as younger children.
Bronchiolitis is caused by several kinds of viruses. It easily spreads from person to person in the same way a common cold does. This often happens when droplets of moisture that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person are then breathed in by a non-infected person.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Bronchiolitis can affect anyone, but it most often strikes:
- Children under the age of two, especially between three and six months
- During the winter months
- Children most at risk are those who:
- Were never breast-fed
- Were born prematurely
- Are exposed to tobacco smoke
- Are often in groups of children (as in day care) or live in crowded conditions
Symptoms of bronchiolitis occur in two stages.
During the first two to three days the child will probably have a:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Slight fever
During the next two to three days, the symptoms increase to include:
- Fast rate of breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Wheezing (making a whistling noise during breathing)
- Bluish color in the skin, especially around the lips or nails
To diagnose bronchiolitis the doctor may do one or more of the following:
- Listen to the child’s lungs to check for abnormal breathing, such as wheezing
- In severe cases, take a chest x-ray to check for swelling in the airways and signs of pneumonia
- Collect a sample of mucus to test for the virus that may be causing the infection
- Do a blood test to determine the level of oxygen in the blood
There is no medication to treat viral infections. Bronchiolitis usually clears up on its own after a week or ten days. There are several ways to make the child more comfortable while he or she is experiencing Symptoms:
- Have the child drink liquids
- Use a vaporizer in the bedroom
- When the child is coughing or having difficulty breathing, steam up the bathroom using hot water from the shower and sit in there with him or her
- Use acetaminophen (brand names are Tylenol or Children’s or Infant’s Tylenol) if a fever is present
In severe cases, medical treatment may be necessary. The doctor will check for dehydration (excessive loss of body water) and pneumonia, and make sure the child is getting enough oxygen. Sometimes the doctor will prescribe medicine for the cough. Call the doctor if the 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
- Is dehydrated
Since bronchiolitis spreads easily from one person to another, children should be kept home until they are well in order to prevent giving the infection to others. There is no vaccine to prevent bronchiolitis. However, there is a medication to lessen the risk of infection by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus which causes more than half of all cases of bronchiolitis. This medication is usually given to high-risk babies.
Good hand-washing habits can help to prevent the spread of bronchiolitis, especially before touching a baby or after being in contact with an infected one.