Health conditions

Bronchiolitis

  • Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection in babies under 12 months of age.
  • Symptoms include coughing and wheezing.
  • Seek medical advice if symptoms are persistent, or you are worried about your baby.
  • It is infectious, so keep your baby home from child care or other places where there may be young children.

Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection in babies that causes inflammation in the small airway passages of the lungs (bronchioles).

The symptoms can appear to be like asthma, but it is a different condition, and needs to be treated differently. Having bronchiolitis as a baby does not mean that the baby will go on to develop asthma.

As bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, it is an infectious disease. You will need to keep your baby home from child care and other places where there may be young children. Older children and adults can catch the virus that causes bronchiolitis, and this will cause symptoms of a cold, but it is most common in young children and babies.

What causes it?

Bronchiolitis can be caused by many different viruses, although the most common is respiratory syncytial virus (also known as RSV). It is spread through sneezing, coughing or close personal contact.

Smoking in the house increases the risk of babies getting bronchiolitis and other respiratory illnesses.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Bronchiolitis usually starts with a cold, and then after a day or so, causes coughing, fast breathing and wheezing. Babies can also get flaring of the nostrils and have difficulty breathing. Bronchiolitis is usually at its worst on the second and third days, but for some babies it can last for up to 10 days.

You might notice that your baby is working hard to breathe, for example, her ribs might be moving in and out more than usual, and her nostrils flaring. In severe cases, you might notice that your child’s lips might look blue.

Your baby might be finding it hard to feed and be quite upset.

Premature babies and babies with heart disease, or major birth defects are more at risk of severe bronchiolitis.

How is it treated?

As bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not work to make your baby better, as antibiotics are only useful against bacteria. Often the illness is mild, and for most babies with mild bronchiolitis, you will be able to manage it at home.

You will need to be aware of dehydration. Babies with bronchiolitis will find it difficult to feed if they are coughing a lot. Feeding can be tiring, so you will need to give your child smaller, but more frequent feeds to make sure they are getting enough fluid. For example, give your baby smaller feeds such as breastmilk or formula every hour instead of every three hours.

Your baby will need to rest as much as possible. You can give your baby paracetamol if required, following the directions on the packet. If your baby’s bronchiolitis is more serious, they might need to go to hospital. This is usually if they are not feeding properly, if they have become dehydrated, or need oxygen. If you are worried about your baby in any way, please see your family GP.

Where to get help

See a doctor immediately if your baby is:

  • breathing very fast or has irregular breathing
  • coughing and distressed
  • having trouble feeding
  • changing colour in the face when they cough.
  • seems tired, pale and sweaty and is very irritable.

Or if you are worried about your baby in any way, please see your doctor.

Call 000 for an ambulance if your baby develops any of the following:

  • breathing becomes noisy, very fast or shallow
  • ribs seem to be sucked in when the child is breathing
  • skin seems to be turning blue especially around the lips or fingertips
  • vomiting
  • drowsiness or difficulty waking up.

Acknowledgements

Child and Adolescent Health Service – Community Health (CAHS CH)


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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