Bronchiolitis is an inflammation in the lungs. It affects the small breathing tubes. It's most common in children under 2 years of age. Children tend to get better after a few days. But in some cases, it can lead to severe illness. So a child with this lung infection must be treated and watched carefully.

Girl sitting up in bed, coughing.

What is bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is an infection that involves the small breathing tubes of the lungs. The most common cause is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) but it can be caused by other viruses. The virus causes the very small breathing tubes in the lungs (bronchioles) to become inflamed, swollen, and filled with fluid. In small children, this can lead to trouble breathing and feeding. The symptoms start out like those of a common cold. They include stuffy and runny nose, sneezing, and a mild cough. Over a few days, your child may develop wheezing, trouble breathing, and a fever.

How is bronchiolitis treated?

Antibiotics are not used to treat bronchiolitis unless a bacterial infection is present. Your child's healthcare provider may prescribe saline nose drops to help clear the mucus. In severe cases, your child may need to stay in the hospital. He or she may get IV (intravenous) fluids, oxygen, and breathing treatments.

How can I prevent the spread of bronchiolitis? 

The viruses that caused bronchiolitis spread easily. They can be spread through touching, coughing, or sneezing. To help stop the spread of infection:

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap often. Or, use alcohol-based hand cleaners. Do this before and after touching your child, before and after preparing food, and before and after treating a cut. Also wash your hands after changing diapers, coughing or sneezing, using the toilet, touching garbage, or touching or feeding a pet.

  • Scrub hands for at least 20 seconds with clean, running water and soap. If you need a timer, sing the "Happy Birthday" song through twice.

  • Teach other family members and caregivers about proper hand washing.

  • Keep your child away from other children while he or she is sick.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if your child:

  • Has worsening symptoms

  • Has a deep, harsh-sounding cough

  • Has a fever (see Fever and children, below)

Call 911

Call 911 right away if your child is:

  • Breathing faster than normal or has wheezing or a whistling sound with breathing

  • Difficult to arouse or wake up

  • Unable to speak or swallow

  • Having trouble breathing or has blue, purple, or gray skin or lips

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds of digital thermometers. They include ones for the mouth, ear, forehead (temporal), rectum, or armpit. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Use a rectal thermometer with care. It may accidentally poke a hole in the rectum. It may pass on germs from the stool. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, use another type. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child.

A baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

A child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

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