What is Bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in children, responsible for putting about 90,000 American children in the hospital each year. This common respiratory tract infection can be caused by several different viruses, and affects the bronchioles, the tiny airways in that lead to the lungs in particular.  As the infection takes hold, these bronchioles become inflamed, or swell up, and fill with mucus. 


The swelling coupled with the mucous can breathing difficult, especially for a child.  The bronchiolitis causing viruses that cause are spread like traditional colds, through coughing and sneezing from one person to the next. This lung infection is most common in young chidren under 2 years old, and even more common in infants that are usually occurs in children under age 2, especially in infants 3 - 6 months old.   Younger children and infants are more affected because they are just smaller in general.  A small airway can be more easily blocked compared to a larger, adult one.  

As mentioned, bronchiolitis begins like a cold, and most parents probably see it as such.  The difference is that over time it, as the virus develops, it can cause difficulty breathing, increased heartbeat, fever, and wheezing.  Parents should be mindful of bluish-colored skin in their children, as it can be a sign they are not getting enough oxygen because of the obstructed airways.  If the infection persists, especially in infants that are premature or have underlying lung or heart conditions, bronchiolitis may require hospitalization.

Bronchiolitis is typically caused by a viral infection, the most common virus being respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is responsible for more than half of bronchiolitis cases that arise.  Other common viral causes are rhinovirus, influenza (flu), and human metapneumovirus.

Symptoms of Bronchiolitis:

Symptoms of bronchiolitis, especially when it first appears, are extremely similar to those of the common cold.   They include:

·         stuffiness

·         runny nose

·         mild cough

·         mild fever

Cold-like symptoms last for a couple days and then continue to get worse.  The next symptoms to develop are wheezing and a more severe cough. As the infection progresses, breathing becomes more difficult and more severe symptoms develop such as the following:

·         rapid, shallow breathing

·         a rapid heartbeat

·         flaring of the nostrils

·         irritability, with difficulty sleeping and signs of fatigue or lethargy

·         vomiting after coughing

·         decreased appetite

More rarely, a child or infant have episodes of apnea, where they stop breathing for a short period of time.  Unfortunately, because this infection is viral there is no antibiotic or professional treatment for it.  The best thing to do is treat the symptoms and boost the immune system of the child so they can fight off the infection in time.   One thing to note for kids and parents alike is that having bronchiolitis as a child can put you at higher risk for asthma later in life.