Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection that primarily affects infants and young children. The condition predominantly occurs during the first two years of life, with a peak incidence between three and six months.
Bronchiolitis unlike other respiratory infections primarily affects the bronchioles – the smaller airway passages in the lungs. Because these airways are smaller, when they become inflamed, it can significantly impact breathing.
This blog provides an overview of bronchiolitis, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Bronchiolitis Causes and risk factors
Bronchiolitis is often caused by the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). This virus spreads through droplets when infected individuals sneeze or cough. It can also be contracted by touch if a hand comes into contact with a virus-laden object, such as a toy, and subsequently makes contact with the eyes, mouth, or nose. Additionally, other viruses responsible for bronchiolitis include influenza (flu) virus, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, and rhinovirus.
Risk factors for bronchiolitis include prematurity, age below six months, absence of breastfeeding, exposure to tobacco smoke, overcrowding, and a weakened immune system. The condition is also more common during fall, winter, and early spring.
The initial symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of the common cold and may include a runny nose, mild cough, and a slightly elevated temperature. However, over the next few days, the child’s symptoms can worsen to include a significant cough, fast or laboured breathing, a high-pitched wheezing noise when breathing out, and brief pauses in breathing along with fatigue and irritability.
The first step in diagnosing bronchiolitis is taking a detailed medical history of the child. The doctor will ask questions about the child’s symptoms, the duration of the illness, any recent exposure to sick individuals, and any preexisting health conditions. Information about the child’s age, vaccination status, and recent travel history may also be relevant in the diagnostic process.
This is followed by a thorough physical examination essential in assessing the child’s respiratory status and identifying signs of bronchiolitis. During the examination, the doctor will observe the child’s breathing pattern, listen for abnormal lung sounds, and check for signs of respiratory distress, such as rapid or laboured breathing, flaring of the nostrils, and retractions (visible pulling in of the chest wall during breathing).
The presence of wheezing, crackles, or diminished breath sounds on auscultation of the lungs may also indicate bronchiolitis. The doctor will also look for other associated symptoms like a runny nose, cough, and fever.
Doctors usually analyse the baby’s chest sounds and count its breathing rate. Lab tests are not typically required, but sometimes if the symptoms are severe, atypical, or if there are concerns about underlying health conditions, the doctor may recommend additional tests such as chest X-ray and nasal swab analysis. Doctors may need to test the child’s blood or mucus to identify the specific viral cause. Doctors may need to test the child’s blood or mucus to identify the specific viral cause.
Early and accurate diagnosis is essential to provide appropriate care and management, ensuring the best possible outcome for young patients with bronchiolitis.
This can be useful in preventing unnecessary antibiotic use since bronchiolitis is a viral infection that antibiotics cannot treat. A chest X-ray may also be ordered if the physician suspects a complication such as pneumonia.
Since bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, there is no specific cure, and the illness must run its course. In most cases, the infection resolves within two weeks. The goal of treatment is to make breathing easier and to ensure that the child can take in plenty of liquids, as dehydration can complicate bronchiolitis.
Medication like bronchodilators may be used to relax and open up air passages in the lungs. Acetaminophen can alleviate discomfort or reduce fever, while intravenous fluids can prevent dehydration.
Elevating the head when the child is sleeping can assist with easier breathing. Keep them away from smoke of any kind as it can worsen respiratory symptoms.
Using a cool-mist humidifier in the child’s room can help add moisture to the air, easing respiratory discomfort and reducing nasal congestion. Make sure to clean the humidifier regularly to prevent the growth of bacteria or mould.
In severe cases, hospitalisation might be necessary. In these instances, the child may be given supplemental oxygen or may need to receive fluids intravenously.
Preventive measures that can reduce the likelihood of contracting bronchiolitis include washing hands frequently, covering mouths when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding close contact with people who have infections. Also, keeping toys, surfaces and objects clean can help prevent the spread of the virus.
During peak bronchiolitis season, try to limit the child’s exposure to crowded places and keep them away from individuals with respiratory illnesses. Ensure your child gets their flu shots which is recommended for everyone 6 months and older.
Also Read: Quick Tips for Treating Kids with Flu
Bronchiolitis is a potentially serious condition for infants and young children. Recognizing the early symptoms and seeking prompt medical attention is crucial to ensure the best outcomes.
If you suspect your child has bronchiolitis, seek medical advice immediately. Remember to take preventive measures to reduce the risk of viral infections and maintain good hand hygiene. With appropriate care and preventive measures, the impact of this condition can be minimised.