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Bronchiolitis in babies

We look at bronchiolitis symptoms in babies and the treatment that is available if you think your child might be suffering from it.

What is bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is a contagious condition affecting babies and young children. It is caused by an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs called the bronchioles, which restricts the amount of air able to enter the lungs, making it more difficult for a child to breathe.

Babies at greater risk of developing severe bronchiolitis include premature babies and babies with certain heart or lung conditions. In most cases bronchiolitis is not a severe illness, however, 3% of babies who are under one year and have bronchiolitis are admitted to hospital every year in the UK.

What's the difference between bronchitis and bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis should not be confused with bronchitis.

Bronchitis is a condition that affects both adults and children. It occurs when an infection causes the bronchi (the larger airways in the lungs) to become irritated and swollen (inflamed), which causes more mucus production than usual. The body will try to get rid of this extra mucus through coughing.

Bronchiolitis is an inflammation of the bronchioles (the small airways in the lungs), which causes breathing difficulties.

How common is bronchiolitis in babies?

It is estimated that one in three babies in the UK develop bronchiolitis in the first year of their life. The condition is most common in young babies who are three to six months old.

The timing of the bronchiolitis season slightly varies in the UK from year to year but it usually occurs during the winter months, from October to March, when the viruses that can cause bronchiolitis are more common. It is also possible to develop bronchiolitis more than once during the same winter season.

What are the symptoms of bronchiolitis?

Early bronchiolitis symptoms can be very similar to a common cold – the first symptom is often a blocked or runny nose, which is sometimes accompanied by a cough or slightly high temperature (a normal temperature is 36-36.8 ?C or 96.8-98.2 ?F).

These symptoms are likely to get slightly worse during the first three days, then gradually start to improve. Most cases of bronchiolitis are not serious, but these earlier (relatively mild) symptoms can become more severe, so it is very important to regularly monitor your child and look out for any significant changes to their symptoms (see below).

When should I seek medical advice?

Babies who may have a more severe case of bronchiolitis usually exhibit four specific symptoms, the most significant of which is a distinctive rasping cough. In a small number of severe cases, your baby’s tongue and lips may turn ‘blue’ in colour. If this happens, take your baby to A&E or call for an ambulance immediately.  Severe symptoms typically last for two to three days, then gradually ease and resolve within one to two weeks. In many cases, the condition can be treated without having to go to hospital, but severe cases may require hospitalisation.

Remember F.A.C.T:

  • Fast breathing: shallow, quick breaths not taking in much air
  • Appetite: inability to feed
  • Cough: distinctive rasping cough
  • Temperature: high temperature will usually accompany cold-like symptoms of a runny nose

If your baby exhibits these symptoms, seek medical attention from your GP or health visitor.

How can bronchiolitis be prevented?

The viruses that cause bronchiolitis are very common and easily spread. Bronchiolitis prevention is not easy, but there are some simple steps to reduce the chances of your child getting bronchiolitis. If your child already has the illness, then these steps can help prevent the infection spreading further:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water - especially before you touch the baby. Make sure siblings and visitors wash their hands too.
  • Cover your child's nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze.
  • Try to keep away from other children and adults who show signs of a cough or cold.
  • Wash or wipe toys regularly to prevent the spread of germs.
  • Ensure your baby is kept away from tobacco smoke. Never allow anyone to smoke around your baby.

In some cases, babies with a high risk of developing severe bronchiolitis are given an immunisation to help protect them from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. Your paediatrician or neonatologist will give you further information and advice if your child is at high risk.

The content on this page is based on information from AbbVie's More Than a Cold campaign

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Find out about the More Than a Cold campaign which provides a winter illness checklist for parents and lots of useful information about bronchiolitis.