Bronchiolitis in Children

A mother helping her daughter with breathing due to bronchiolitis.
Diagram of a young child with normal breathing from lungs.

Bronchiolitis is a common respiratory illness that affects children younger than two years old. It causes symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. In this article, we will discuss what bronchiolitis is, its common symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and the typical treatment options available.

Pediatric Associates of Austin is committed to providing expert care and support for children affected by bronchiolitis and other pediatric conditions. If you’re in the Austin, TX, area and need assistance with your child’s health, don’t hesitate to reach out to schedule an appointment. 

What is Bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is a common illness in babies and young children, especially during the colder months. Bronchiolitis affects the tiny airways in the lungs called bronchioles. These airways become swollen and filled with mucus, making it harder for air to move in and out of the lungs. This can lead to trouble breathing, which can be scary for both children and parents.

What Causes Bronchiolitis in Children?

Bronchiolitis in children is most commonly caused by a viral infection, with the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) being the leading culprit. 

Respiratory syncytial virus is highly contagious and spreads easily through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Because young children have developing immune systems, they are more susceptible to RSV and other respiratory infections, making bronchiolitis more common in infants and toddlers.

Other viruses can also cause bronchiolitis, including rhinovirus, adenovirus, and influenza. These viruses infect the respiratory tract, leading to inflammation and mucus production in the bronchioles.

Bronchiolitis Risk Factors

Several factors can increase a child’s risk of developing bronchiolitis. One significant factor is age, as bronchiolitis primarily affects children younger than 2 years old. This is because their immune systems are still developing, making them more susceptible to viral infections. 

Children born prematurely or with certain medical conditions, such as congenital heart disease or chronic lung disease, are also at higher risk for developing bronchiolitis. Additionally, babies exposed to secondhand smoke or living in crowded environments, such as daycare centers, may be more prone to respiratory infections, including bronchiolitis.

Furthermore, siblings or close contacts who have respiratory infections can spread viruses to younger children, increasing their risk of developing bronchiolitis. Older children may bring home germs from school or other activities, putting younger siblings at risk of infection.

Environmental factors like cold weather can also contribute to the spread of respiratory viruses and increase the likelihood of bronchiolitis. During the fall and winter months, when respiratory infections are more common, children are at higher risk of developing bronchiolitis.

What Are Common Symptoms of Bronchiolitis in Children?

There are several common symptoms of bronchiolitis to look out for. These symptoms can vary in severity from mild to severe, and they may appear gradually or suddenly. 

Here are some of the most common signs of bronchiolitis:

  1. Runny Nose: One of the earliest symptoms of bronchiolitis is often a runny or stuffy nose. Your child’s nose may be constantly dripping or congested, making it difficult for them to breathe comfortably.
  2. Coughing: A persistent cough is another common symptom of bronchiolitis. This cough may start mild but can become more frequent and severe as the illness progresses.
  3. Difficulty Breathing: As the inflammation in the airways worsens, your child may have difficulty breathing. You may notice them breathing faster than usual or using their chest muscles more than normal to breathe.
  4. Wheezing: Some children with bronchiolitis may develop a wheezing sound when they breathe. This is caused by the narrowed airways and can be heard as a whistling or rattling noise when your child exhales.
  5. Fever: Many children with bronchiolitis will have a fever, although not all children will experience this symptom. A fever is usually a sign that the body is fighting off the viral infection.
  6. Irritability: Due to discomfort from symptoms like difficulty breathing and congestion, your child may become more irritable or fussy than usual.
  7. Fatigue: Bronchiolitis can be exhausting for young children, so you may notice that your child is more tired or lethargic than usual.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, especially difficulty breathing or severe coughing, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly.

How is Bronchiolitis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing bronchiolitis in children usually involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, and sometimes additional tests. Here’s how healthcare providers typically diagnose bronchiolitis:

  1. Medical History: Your doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms, including when they started and how severe they are. Be prepared to provide information about any recent illnesses, exposure to sick individuals, or other factors that may be relevant. 
  2. Physical Examination: During the physical exam, the doctor will listen to your child’s lungs with a stethoscope to check for abnormal sounds, such as wheezing or crackles. They will also assess your child’s breathing rate, effort, and overall appearance for signs of respiratory distress.
  3. Additional Tests: In some cases, the doctor may recommend additional tests to help confirm the diagnosis or rule out other conditions. These tests may include a chest X-ray to check for signs of pneumonia or other lung problems, a nasal swab to test for specific viruses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or blood tests to assess the severity of the infection.

Bronchiolitis is usually diagnosed based on clinical symptoms and examination findings, rather than relying solely on test results. In most cases, healthcare providers can diagnose bronchiolitis based on the child’s history and physical exam.

If your child develops symptoms of bronchiolitis, such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, or fever, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly. Early diagnosis and treatment can help ensure your child receives the appropriate care and support to manage the illness effectively. 

How Can Bronchiolitis Be Treated?

Bronchiolitis in children younger than 2 years old is typically managed with supportive care. This means focusing on relieving symptoms while the body fights off the virus. Treatment may include:

  • Hydration: Encouraging your child to drink plenty of fluids helps prevent dehydration, especially if they have a fever or are breathing rapidly.
  • Rest: Giving your child plenty of rest helps their body recover from the illness and conserve energy.
  • Humidified air: Using a humidifier or sitting with your child in a steamy bathroom can help loosen mucus and ease congestion.
  • Nasal suctioning: Clearing your child’s nose with a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator can help them breathe more comfortably.
  • Fever management: Over-the-counter fever reducers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce fever and discomfort.

In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary for oxygen therapy or intravenous fluids. Always consult a healthcare provider for personalized advice and treatment recommendations for your child’s bronchiolitis.

Seeking Help for Bronchiolitis in Young Children

Bronchiolitis can be a worrying experience for parents, but with proper care and attention, most children recover well. Remember to monitor your child closely for any signs of difficulty breathing or worsening symptoms, and don’t hesitate to seek medical advice if needed.

Pediatric Associates of Austin is here to support you and your child through every step of the way. Our team of experienced pediatricians is dedicated to providing compassionate and personalized care for children affected by bronchiolitis and other respiratory illnesses. Schedule an appointment with our office in Austin, Texas, today! Your child’s well-being is our top priority.

Pictures showing what to look for when baby has breathing problems.


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