Bronchiolitis in Infants: Understanding the Symptoms and Treatment Options

child coughing in bed on a pink pillow

Bronchiolitis is a common respiratory illness among infants. It affects the lower respiratory tract, particularly the bronchioles, which are small branches of air tubes located in the lungs.

This condition usually appears as a result of viral infections like RSV or Respiratory Syncytial Virus. Bronchiolitis typically occurs in children aged two and under, but cases are most often seen in children between three and six months old.

By understanding the symptoms and treatment options, you can identify the condition early, allowing you to seek appropriate care for your child.

Symptoms of Bronchiolitis in Infants

At first, bronchiolitis appears to be nothing more than a common cold. The initial symptoms are usually:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Mild fever
  • Cough

However, as the illness progresses and worsens, the symptoms become severe and start to involve the lower respiratory tract. That’s when the following symptoms usually appear:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Retractions (the skin around the neck and between the ribs starts to sink in from the child struggling to breathe)
  • Reduced appetite
  • Dehydration as a result of diminished feeding

If severe cases are not treated, bronchiolitis can cause respiratory failure and require hospitalization. That’s why it’s critical to recognize the signs of bronchiolitis and seek medical attention if you notice more severe symptoms, especially difficulty breathing and dehydration.

Risk Factors of Bronchiolitis

Certain risk factors can increase the chances of your child developing bronchiolitis:

  • Premature birth
  • Weak immune system
  • Exposure to air pollution or cigarette smoke
  • History of heart or lung problems
  • Being younger than six months during peak RSV season (November through April)

If you know your child is vulnerable to any of these risks, make sure to monitor them for any symptoms and take action as soon as possible if symptoms occur.

Preventing Bronchiolitis

Viral infections often cause bronchiolitis, so good hygiene practices can help reduce the risk. Some preventive measures you can take include:

  • Frequent handwashing, especially after contact with someone who is sick
  • Avoiding close contact with people who have respiratory illnesses like colds
  • Keeping infants away from crowded places during peak RSV season
  • Keeping your child up to date on their immunizations
  • Avoiding environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke

While you may not be able to prevent bronchiolitis completely, these preventive steps can reduce your child’s risk of developing the illness.

Treatment Options for Bronchiolitis

Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and easily managed at home with proper supportive care:

  • Encouraging feeding and fluid intake to prevent dehydration
  • Using a cool-mist humidifier to help ease breathing
  • Elevating your child’s head while they sleep to help drain mucus
  • Suctioning nasal passages to clear mucus buildup

In some cases, infants do require medical intervention from a pediatric pulmonology care provider. 

Pediatric pulmonology is a medical specialization. A pediatric pulmonologist focuses on diagnosing and treating pediatric lung disorders, using their extensive knowledge of infants’ unique needs to provide targeted care. Treatment options may include:

  • Oxygen Therapy: Supplemental oxygen is administered through a nasal cannula or mask to help the infant breathe better
  • IV Fluids: Injecting fluids directly into the bloodstream to prevent dehydration
  • Medications: Prescriptions that help reduce inflammation and open the airways
  • Mechanical Ventilation: Using a ventilator to support the infant’s breathing, which is only required in severe cases

If your child’s symptoms continue or worsen, you may want to seek the expertise of a pediatric pulmonologist.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you notice any of the following signs, you should seek immediate medical attention:

  • Rapid or labored breathing
  • Persistent wheezing or coughing
  • Dehydration (look for dry mouth, reduced urine, and sunken eyes)
  • Changes in skin color, like blue around the fingertips and lips
  • High fever
  • Continued lethargy

When in doubt, it’s better to err on the side of caution than to overlook these potentially dangerous symptoms.

A pediatric pulmonology specialist will assess your child’s condition and provide appropriate treatment by monitoring their progress and making necessary adjustments. The specialist will also counsel you on managing your child’s condition at home and preventing cases of bronchiolitis in the future.

Pediatric Pulmonology Specialists Treat Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis, while common, can lead to severe complications. By understanding how to identify the symptoms and knowing the risk factors, you can empower yourself as a parent to make the best decisions for your child. 

While you can manage mild cases of bronchiolitis at home, seeking care from a pediatric pulmonology specialist can better your child’s health while providing you peace of mind.