Bronchiolitis and your baby

  • Bronchiolitis is inflammation and blockage of the tiniest airways in your baby's lungs.

Does your baby need to see a specialist?

    What is bronchiolitis?

    Bronchiolitis is inflammation and blockage of the tiniest airways in your baby's lungs. It is usually 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.

    How does bronchiolitis affect your baby?

    Usually bronchiolitis starts like a simple cold. The most common feature is a rasping cough. 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?

    Bronchiolitis accounts for 3 per cent of emergency hospital visits in children under two years old. By the age of two, nearly all infants will have had at least one RSV infection but in most cases, it will have caused no more than a simple cold. Bronchiolitis is most common between November and March.

    Ways to prevent bronchiolitis

    You can help prevent the illness by asking adults and other children who have a viral infection to keep away from your baby. This is common sense (although not always possible).

    Make sure that you, your family and anyone who handles your baby washes their hands regularly to avoid passing on the virus (RSV) that causes bronchiolitis. Do not smoke or let others smoke around your baby as this makes your baby more likely to pick up an infection and will make symptoms of the illness worse.

    Short-term immunisation can be given to high risk babies through a series of injections during the five months of the bronchiolitis season (November to March). However, this treatment is very expensive and not available under the NHS in all parts of the UK. Speak to your GP for more information. 

    What symptoms to look out for

    Here are some important signs that you should look out for in your baby if they seem to have a cold that is going on for longer than usual:

    • Your baby is having more difficulty in feeding.
    • Your baby is sleepier or less alert than usual.
    • Your baby has more, or new, symptoms such as a cough, wheeze or difficulty in breathing.
    • The colour of your baby's skin is changing, for example, if it's pale or mottled.

    If you are worried ask your GP for advice or contact NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. You can also call the British Lung Foundation Helpline on 03000 030 555.

    If your baby looks blue or is clearly struggling to breathe, call an ambulance immediately.

    What can you do to help your baby?

    It is important that your baby has enough fluid so that he/she doesn't become dehydrated. If you are breast feeding you should 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.

    Keep ill babies away from irritating fumes, including cigarette smoke, paint and burning wood, which can make breathing more difficult.

    Bronchiolitis is highly infectious. If you have other children it is possible that they will be affected too, so keep toys and surfaces clean. It is important to ensure that everyone who comes into contact with your baby washes their hands thoroughly to avoid spreading the virus.

    Does your baby need to see a specialist?

    Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and can be treated at home with the support of your GP 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 (children’s specialist) or go to hospital.

In most cases no medication 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. You can also call the British Lung Foundation Helpline on 03000 030 555.

More than a cold?
more than a cold
Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection that affects babies and small children. The More Than A Cold website aims to raise awareness of this condition.
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