Bronchiolitis is a common respiratory tract infection that often occurs in children under the age of two. The infection causes congestion and inflammation in the airways leading to the lungs. The reason infants are at greater risk for this disease is that their airways, commonly known as the bronchial tubes or bronchi, are narrow, allowing them to become blocked more easily than those of older patients. Risk factors for bronchiolitis may include premature birth and not being breastfed.

The first symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of a common cold. As the disease progresses, however, mucus collects in these airways and the child develops a cough, and may begin to wheeze and have difficulty breathing. Other symptoms of bronchiolitis may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Intercostal retractions, where the ribs sink into the chest
  • Nasal flaring
  • Rapid breathing
  • Cyanosis, or bluish skin color

Diagnostic tests may be administered to confirm a case of bronchiolitis. These may include blood gas tests, chest X-rays, and cultures of nasal fluid.

Bronchiolitis is almost always viral in origin and therefore cannot be successfully treated with antibiotics. While bronchiolitis is serious since it interferes with the breathing process, the condition will usually resolve without treatment in 3 to 5 days. This illness is treated by rest, hydration, the use of a humidifier, and, if the symptoms are severe,the administration of oxygen. It is rare for this illness to require hospitalization.

Possible complications of bronchiolitis, though rare, may include pneumonia, a predisposition to asthma later in life, and respiratory failure. The only ways to prevent bronchiolitis are to keep infants from being exposed to others with symptoms of respiratory illness and to protect them from secondhand smoke.

Additional Resources