What is it?
Not to be confused with bronchitis (an infection of the large airways to the lungs, which can affect both children and adults), bronchiolitis affects the bronchioles, the smaller airways deep inside the lungs, causing difficulty breathing.
Babies and children are most likely to go down with bronchiolitis during the winter months (October to March), when the bugs that can cause it are more virulent. The biggest culprit is the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is believed to be responsible for 80% of cases in infants. It's an airborne virus, passed around with coughs and sneezes, and by germs transmitted on hands, toys and so on.
Bronchiolitis is quite common, affecting one in three babies before their first birthday (most often between three and six months). But a survey last year showed many parents were unaware of the likelihood of their child suffering with it and, consequently, the condition is often mistaken for a nasty cold.
In most cases bronchiolitis is not severe – the cold-like symptoms of a runny nose and mild fever will go on around three days, and the cough should clear up in two to three weeks. However, there are some telltale signs of a more serious infection, which can helpfully be remembered thus:
Fast breathing: shallow, quick breaths, not taking in much air
Appetite: inability to feed
Cough: distinctive rasping
Temperature: high temperature will usually accompany a runny nose
Babies born prematurely, or those who have an underlying lung or heart condition, are at higher risk if they contract bronchiolitis. About 3% of children who get it are admitted to hospital each year, and they will be given help to breathe with a nebuliser, and fluids intravenously. Children who have it severely might continue to suffer with wheeziness every time they get a cold.
What can I do?
First of all, read up on it. The Bronchiolitis Awareness Campaign has been designed to help parents recognise bronchiolitis, and hopefully reduce the number of babies suffering with it severely.
If you notice the FACT symptoms above, contact your GP – although they won't give you antibiotics (they won't work), they will assess the seriousness of the infection.
If at any time you notice a blue tinge around your baby's mouth or they seem to be struggling to breathe (look for a tightening and sucking in of the skin over the chest), go to A&E or call an ambulance.
The vast majority of cases are mild and there are things you can do to help your baby get through the first few horrid days. If their fever is very high, then liquid paracetamol is suitable for babies over the age of three months and it will help to take the edge off.
If your baby is not feeding well, it might be because of the difficulty they are having with breathing and drinking/eating at the same time – so offer smaller feeds, little and often.
It is very important that your baby stays hydrated, so do keep an eye on those nappies to check they are wet throughout the day. If you are worried your baby is not drinking enough, seek medical advice.
Although a steamy bathroom is not proven to help with breathing difficulties, it might loosen your little one's chest a little – and experiencing that strange fog might be fun for them!
And while bronchiolitis can't be treated with antibiotics, remember, it is preventable to a degree. Reduce the chances of your baby getting it by washing your hands frequently, and trying to avoid other adults and children with coughs and colds.
What else could it be?
If your child woke in the night with a high fever, a loud 'barking' cough and a whistling sound when breathing, they might have croup.
If your child is wheezing, coughing and is short of breath, but there is no fever, they might have asthma.
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