What is bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that causes the airways (bronchioles) in the lungs to become narrow, which makes breathing difficult. It occurs most often in children under age 2 during winter and early spring. Very rarely, adults can get bronchiolitis.

What’s the difference between bronchiolitis and bronchitis?

These two conditions not only sound similar, but they are similar in some ways. Both can be caused by a virus. Both affect the airways in the lungs, but bronchitis affects the larger airways (the bronchi). Bronchiolitis affects the smaller airways (bronchioles). Bronchitis usually affects older children and adults, while bronchiolitis is more common in younger children.

What causes bronchiolitis?

The viruses that cause most cases of bronchiolitis are the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the rhinovirus and the influenza (flu) virus. These viruses are very contagious and are spread from person to person by touching secretions from the mouth or nose or by respiratory droplets in the air. The droplets get into the air when someone sneezes or coughs.

What are the signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis?

Signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis resemble those of colds and flu. They include:

  • Runny nose.
  • Slight fever (under 101 F).
  • Cough.
  • Rapid or shallow breathing.
  • Wheezing. This might be the first time that your child has wheezing. In bronchiolitis, this follows 3 days or so of the first three symptoms.

Your child might show more severe signs, including:

  • Making grunting noises.
  • Having trouble sucking and swallowing, which makes feeding difficult on top of having a poor appetite.
  • Trying so hard to breathe that their chest retracts (the skin is drawn down tightly against the rib cage and looks like it is going inward).
  • Turning blue or gray in the lips, fingertips or toes.
  • Being sluggish.

How Is Bronchiolitis Diagnosed?

When they suspect bronchiolitis, doctors listen to the child’s chest and check oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter.

Usually, no tests are needed. The doctor may use a swab to get a sample of mucus from the nose for testing. This helps with identifying the type of u the problem.

A chest X-ray might be done if the child’s oxygen level is low or the doctor suspects pneumonia.

Is Bronchiolitis Contagious?

Viruses that cause bronchiolitis spread easily through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Germs can stay on hands, toys, doorknobs, tissues, and other surfaces. People can be contagious for several days or even weeks.

How Long Does Bronchiolitis Last?

Bronchiolitis usually lasts about 1–2 weeks. Sometimes it can take several weeks for symptoms to go away.

Get medical care right away if a baby:

  • has fast, shallow breathing and you can see the belly moving up and down quickly
  • has labored breathing, when the areas below the ribs, between the ribs, and/or in the neck sink in as a child breathes in
  • has flaring nostrils
  • is very fussy and can’t be comforted
  • is very tired or won’t wake up for feedings
  • has a poor appetite or isn’t feeding well
  • fewer wet diapers or peeing less than usual
  • has a blue color to the lips, tongue, or nails

You know your child best. Call your doctor right away if something doesn’t seem right.

Can Bronchiolitis Be Prevented?

Washing hands well and often is the best way to prevent the spread of viruses that can cause bronchiolitis and other infections.


  • Keep infants away from anyone who has a cold or cough.
  • Keep kids away from secondhand smoke.
  • Keep toys and surfaces clean.

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