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Causes of bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis can be caused by many different viruses, but it's most often caused by a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This virus spreads through sneezing, coughing or personal contact.

Bronchiolitis symptoms

When bronchiolitis starts, bronchiolitis symptoms look a bit like a cold. They include a runny nose and sneezing, a mild cough and sometimes a fever.

As bronchiolitis develops, your child's breathing might become fast and laboured and her cough might get more severe.

You might notice signs that your child is working hard to breathe - for example, his ribs moving in and out more than usual, and his nostrils flaring. You might also hear a high-pitched whistling sound called a 'wheeze' when your child breathes out. In severe cases, your child's lips might look blue.

Your child might be hard to feed and she might get quite upset.

Bronchiolitis is usually at its worst on the second or third day, but it can last for up to 10 days. As your baby improves, the wheezing and the fast breathing settles. The cough can last longer.

Bronchiolitis is most common in babies and young children.

Bronchiolitis has similar symptoms to asthma, but it's a different condition and needs different treatment.

When to see your GP about bronchiolitis symptoms

You should take your child to see your GP if your child:

  • is breathing very fast or has irregular breathing
  • is coughing and distressed
  • has difficulty feeding or drinking and has fewer wet nappies than usual
  • is changing colour in the face when he coughs.
  • is tired or more sleepy than usual.
Take your child to hospital immediately if she becomes short of breath, has difficulty breathing or looks blue around the lips.

Treatment for bronchiolitis

If your child's bronchiolitis is mild, you'll be able to manage it at home:

  • If your breastfed child is younger than six months, offer extra breastfeeds.
  • If your formula-fed child is younger than six months, offer him his usual amount of formula. You might need to feed him smaller amounts more frequently if he's unwell.
  • If your child is older than six months, keep breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. You can also offer your child clear fluids, like water. If your child isn't hungry while she has a fever, that's OK.
  • Give your child paracetamol according to directions if he has a fever.
  • Ensure that your child gets as much rest as possible.
  • Make sure your child is in a smoke-free environment. Also avoid contact with other babies and children in the first few days, because bronchiolitis is an infectious disease.

You child doesn't need antibiotics, because bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, and antibiotics don't cure viruses.

If your child's bronchiolitis is more serious, she might need to go to hospital. This is usually because she isn't feeding properly, has become dehydrated, or needs oxygen. Your doctor will tell you whether your child needs to go to hospital.

Your child might need fluids via a nose tube or a drip into a vein in his arm. Sometimes your child might be given asthma medication like Ventolin®. This might help some children breathe more easily by opening up their airways, but it's generally not effective in children younger than six months of age.