What Is Bronchiolitis?

boy with nebulizer
A baby with bronchiolitis. Ruslan Dashinsky/E+/Getty Images

Bronchiolitis is an illness that causes the small airways leading to the lungs - known as bronchioles - to become swollen and filled with mucous, making it difficult to breathe. It is most common in young children.

Bronchiolitis can be caused by several different infections - most commonly by viruses such as RSV, the flu or rhinovirus (the common cold).

Symptoms of Bronchiolitis:

Symptoms of bronchiolitis start like the symptoms of the illness that lead to it. For most children, this includes:

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Low-grade fever

After a few days, these symptoms worsen with a more severe cough and wheezing.

More severe symptoms that could develop include:

  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Retractions
  • Nasal flaring
  • Irritability and fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting from coughing
  • Cyanosis (skin turning blue)
  • Infants may feed poorly or have very little appetite

If your child has any of these severe symptoms, seek medical attention right away.

Treating Severe Bronchiolitis:

A variety of different viruses cause bronchiolitis, so there is no medication that will cure it. Antibiotics won't work because they only kill bacteria - not viruses. Instead, treatment of bronchiolitis involves treating the symptoms.

Sometimes doctors will prescribe medications to help children breathe better.

Occasionally children who have severe bronchiolitis need to be hospitalized to ensure they are getting enough oxygen.

Treating Bronchiolitis at Home:

If your child has been diagnosed with bronchiolitis but is not having significant difficulty breathing, there are things you can do at home to help him feel better.

Preventing Bronchiolitis:

There is no vaccine to prevent bronchiolitis. The best way to prevent it is to prevent the illnesses that lead to it. Good hand washing is important. Be sure to keep young infants away from people who are sick as well as those who have not been vaccinated against serious illnesses like pertussis.

There are Synagis shots available to children who are very premature or those that are at high risk for RSV. However, they only help prevent infections from RSV, not the other viruses that may lead to bronchiolitis.

If your child is coughing or you are concerned about bronchiolitis, talk to her health care provider. It is a common illness in young children, especially during cold and flu season.


This information is provided for educational purposes only and should not be substituted for medical advice. 


"Bronchiolitis." Lung & Respiratory Infections Nov 10. Kids Health. Nemours Foundation. 26 Jan 11.

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