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

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

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 usually caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The airways become clogged with fluid and mucus, making it hard for your 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.

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 cough after a day or two. Their breathing might become fast and wheezy, 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 is the treatment for bronchiolitis?

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.

It is important to make sure that your home is free of cigarette smoke as it makes the symptoms worse.

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

When to seek medical help

It is a good idea to take your child to a doctor if you notice them:

  • wheezing or having difficulty breathing
  • breathing rapidly
  • eating less than half the usual amount for at least two feeds
  • having a dry nappy for 12 hours or more.

Also arrange to see a doctor if:

  • the symptoms worsen quickly
  • your baby is less than 12 weeks of age
  • your 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.

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

Last reviewed: September 2016

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