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What are the symptoms of bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis usually starts like a simple cold. Most babies will only have mild symptoms and you can look after them at home.

Mild bronchiolitis symptoms

Mild symptoms can include:

  • a slightly high temperature (fever)
  • a dry and persistent raspy cough
  • some difficulty feeding
  • some difficulty breathing or fast breathing
  • noisy breathing (wheezing).

Severe bronchiolitis symptoms

Some babies have more severe symptoms. They might find it hard to feed and become very breathless or breathe in a shallow, irregular way.

Call 999 for urgent help if:

  • They are struggling to breathe. They may grunt or draw the muscles under their chest in when they breathe. This makes them look like they are breathing with their tummies.
  • Your child’s breathing stops for more than 20 seconds on one occasion, or there are regular shorter pauses in their breathing while they are awake.
  • The colour of your baby's skin inside the lips or under the tongue turns blue.

If your baby has a cold that goes on for longer than usual, watch out for these symptoms:

  • they are not feeding well - taking half to three quarters of their normal amount
  • they’ve had no wet nappies for 12 hours or more
  • they are sleepier or less alert than usual
  • they have a high temperature - 38C (100.4F) or above.

If your child has any of these symptoms, contact a health professional. Out of hours, call NHS 111 (in England and Scotland), 0845 46 47 (in Wales) or your local out-of-hours service in Northern Ireland.

Bronchiolitis or pneumonia?

The symptoms of bronchiolitis and pneumonia are very similar, especially in children up to 2 years old. Your doctor will find it difficult to make a firm diagnosis. The focus should be on treating your child’s symptoms and oxygen levels. 

Find out more about getting medical help:

How serious can bronchiolitis be?

Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild, and clear up fully on their own after a few weeks.

Most children make a full recovery from bronchiolitis, without any after effects.

After severe bronchiolitis, it is common for children to have a cough for weeks or months following the infection. Some children may experience recurrent wheezing.

It is very rare indeed for babies and children without underlying health problems to die from bronchiolitis.

How is bronchiolitis diagnosed?

A diagnosis of bronchiolitis is usually made without special tests.

Your health care professional will ask you about your baby’s symptoms and examine their breathing.

They will listen to your baby’s chest and check their temperature.

To make their diagnosis they will consider:

  • your child’s age
  • their symptoms
  • the sound of your baby’s chest
  • their temperature.

They may also see how well your baby’s lungs are working by using a test called pulse oximetry to measure how much oxygen is in the blood.

Next: what is the treatment for bronchiolitis?

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.