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Bronchiolitis is a chest infection that can affect your child’s ability to breathe freely.

Bronchiolitis is a chest infection that can affect your child’s ability to breathe freely.
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What is bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is a chest infection that can affect a child’s ability to breathe freely. It usually affects children under 12 months of age and can be more severe in babies who were born prematurely.

What are the symptoms of bronchiolitis?

Your child might have bronchiolitis if they appear to have a cold and a runny nose that progresses to a wheeze and cough after a day or 2. Their breathing might become fast and labored, making it hard for them to eat and drink.

The symptoms are usually worst on the second or third day of infection. Your child will be mostly better within 7 to 10 days, but the cough might take a couple more weeks to go away completely.

What causes bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is caused by inflammation in the very small airways that deliver air to the lungs (the bronchioles).

It is a viral infection often caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The airways become clogged with fluid and mucus, making it hard for the baby to breathe and obtain enough oxygen.

The virus is spread in small droplets produced by talking, coughing or sneezing and also by contact with objects that carry the virus.

The best ways to prevent the spread of bronchiolitis are to:

  • keep your sick baby away from other children
  • wash your hands frequently

When should I see my doctor?

Seek medical attention if:

  • the baby is wheezing or having difficulty breathing
  • they are breathing rapidly
  • they eat less than half the usual amount for at least 2 feeds
  • they have a dry nappy for 12 hours or more
  • the symptoms worsen quickly
  • the baby is less than 12 weeks of age
  • the baby was born with a medical condition that affects their heart and lungs

Dial triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance if your child is:

  • having a lot of difficulty breathing or is exhausted from trying to breathe
  • pale and sweaty or their skin is blue around the lips or fingernails
  • breathing very rapidly
  • having trouble feeding
  • very tired, cannot be woken or goes back to sleep soon after being woken

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How is bronchiolitis treated?

There are steps you can take to help your baby recover from mild bronchiolitis.

Your baby needs to rest and take in small amounts of fluids frequently so they don't get too tired when feeding and don’t become dehydrated.

Let them have plenty of rest. You can use saline nasal drops or nasal sprays to help clear their nose of mucus, so they can breathe more easily. You can also use paracetamol if they are unsettled and seem uncomfortable.

It is important to make sure that your home is free of cigarette smoke as it makes the symptoms worse. Make sure you keep them away from other children, as bronchiolitis is infectious.

Because bronchiolitis is usually caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help.

Visit Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website for more information about children's health.

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Last reviewed: July 2020

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