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What is Bronchiolitis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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Bronchiolitis is an infection of the bronchioles, tiny branchings of the airway which play an important role in lung function. Most cases of bronchiolitis are very mild, and can be treated at home with support such as plenty of rest and fluids. In some cases, however, the condition can become severe, and the patient may require hospitalization and measures such as intubation or supplemental oxygen. A pediatrician can evaluate a child to determine whether or not hospitalization is needed.

This condition is most commonly seen in children under two, probably because their airways are so small that even mild inflammation can become a problem. In infants, bronchiolitis can be especially dangerous. It is usually caused by a viral infection which leads to inflammation of the bronchioles. Rates of bronchiolitis are especially common in the fall and winter, during the winter cold and flu season. People can reduce the risks by making sure that their children wash their hands regularly, and by asking people to wash their hands before handling their children.

The normal course of bronchiolitis starts out with classic symptoms of a respiratory virus, such as sniffling, sneezing, mild fever, and so forth. Eventually, the patient develops difficulty breathing. This can include labored breathing, flaring of the nostrils with each breathe, and noticeable shortness of breath. The difficulty breathing is caused by the swelling of the bronchioles in response to inflammation. In otherwise healthy patients, the body is usually able to resolve the inflammation on its own.

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Just keeping a child in bed and providing warm fluids is often enough to address a case of bronchiolitis. However, there are situations in which people should call the doctor. Signs that medical attention is needed include: skin color changes, extreme fatigue, bluing of the lips, dehydration, severe wheezing, a rapid breathing rate, or obvious difficulty breathing. These symptoms indicate that the inflammation is severe and the patient needs more aggressive medical treatment.

Respiratory infections are a common problem in young children. Care providers try to strike a balance between seeing a child for any sniffle, and having parents wait too long for treatment. As a general rule, a pediatrician would much rather see a patient for a mild condition which requires no action than to see a patient after it is too late. If parents suspect that a child is having trouble breathing or they are worried about the way the child is breathing, they should take the child to a doctor.

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