Bronchiolitis and your baby


What is bronchiolitis?
Bronchiolitis is inflammation and blockage of the tiniest airways in your baby’s lungs. It is caused by a virus. Bronchiolitis makes your baby cough and become breathless.The most common virus to cause bronchiolitis is Respiratory Syncytial Virus, known as ‘RSV.’Bronchiolitis is most common between November and March.

How does bronchiolitis affect my baby?
Usually bronchiolitis starts like a simple cold. Many babies will only have mild symptoms and can be cared for at home. However some babies experience more severe symptoms and have difficulty in feeding and become very breathless. They may have low levels of oxygen in the blood.

Most babies get better without treatment but some will need to be admitted to hospital. This can happen if they are having difficulty in feeding and coughing a lot, or they might need oxygen for a short period.

Is it common in infants?
Yes. By the age of two, nearly all infants will have had at least one RSV infection. In most cases, it will have caused no more than a simple cold.

What do I need to look out for?
Here are some important signs that you should look out for in your baby, if they seem to have cold which is going on for longer than usual.

  • Your baby is having more difficulty in feeding.
  • Your baby is more sleepy or less alert than usual.
  • Your baby has more, or new, symptoms such as cough, wheeze or difficulty in breathing or feeding.
  • The colour of your baby’s skin is changing, for example: pale or mottled.
    If you are worried please ask your family doctor for advice or contact NHS Direct

Is there any way to prevent bronchiolitis?

No. All you can do is to ask adults and other children who have a viral infection to keep away from your baby. This is common sense (although not always possible). There is no vaccine.

Bronchiolitis is highly infectious. If you have other children it is possible that they will be affected too. It is really important to ensure that everyone who comes into contact with your baby washes their hands thoroughly.

What can I do to help my baby?
It is important that your baby has enough fluid so that he/she doesn’t become dehydrated. If you are breast-feeding please continue, but watch to see if your baby is struggling to feed and taking longer than usual. If you are bottle-feeding, watch to see if your baby is completing the bottle in the usual amount of time. It may be better to give smaller feeds more frequently so that your baby doesn’t become tired.

Make sure they are still having wet nappies – that tells you that your baby is getting enough fluids.

If your baby develops a high temperature it is important to give him/her paracetamol in the dose stated on the bottle. Keep your baby cool and never over wrap him/her if he/she has a temperature.

As bronchiolitis is caused by a virus antibiotics are not usually needed.

Make sure that you and your family wash their hands well before and after picking your baby up as the virus can be passed from person to person.

You know your baby best and will know when something is wrong.

Does my baby need to see a specialist?
Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and can be treated at home with the support of your family doctor if necessary. If your baby is less than six weeks old or has other medical problems (such as congenital heart disease) then it might be a good idea to see a paediatrician or go to hospital.

In most cases no medicines or inhalers are needed, but a few babies may need help with feeding. This may either be by passing a small tube through your baby’s nose into his/her stomach; or by giving fluids into his/her veins for a short time. You can also discuss this with the paediatrician. Some babies may also need extra oxygen.

There is little evidence that bronchiolitis causes asthma. However, your baby may wheeze for some time after the initial infection.

If there is anything else you are worried about please ask for help by speaking to your family doctor, paediatrician, respiratory nurse or health visitor. Or call the British Lung Foundation helpline on 08458 50 50 20.

Page last medically reviewed: Jan ’05


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