Bronchiolitis is an inflammation of the bronchioles of the lungs. The bronchioles are the smallest branches of the respiratory airways – separating the larger bronchial tubes from the very small air sacs were oxygen is feed into your bloodstream. Bronchiolitis is is typically seen only in infants and small children.
The inflammation associated with bronchiolitis is most frequently caused by a viral infection. The most common virus associated with bronchiolitis is known as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Other viruses, such as those causing the common cold, can cause bronchiolitis as well. Most of the viruses that can cause bronchiolitis are highly contagious and care must be taken to prevent epidemic like outbreaks in susceptible populations.
In some unusual circumstances, bronchiolitis can be precipitated by damage to the child’s lung. This is usually caused by inhaling an object such as a small toy (think: Lego pieces), or unchewed pieces of food.
Children who are suffering from a case of bronchiolitis will suddenly have great difficulty breathing. These breathing problems will often be preceded by a day or two viral-like cold symptoms. The affected child will begin wheezing and coughing. Breathing becomes shallow, but more rapid than normal. The child will often have great difficulty taking a normal breath, and will be forced to use their belly, neck, and chest muscles to breathe. Fever is occasionally seen, but not in all cases.
Risk and Prevention
Children who suffer from repeated respiratory infections are at increased risk for developing bronchiolitis. Exposure to other children who are sick greatly increases the odds of coming down with bronchiolitis. Being in a day care setting surrounded all day by other children with sniffles and runny noses will certainly increase a child’s risk. Children who suffer from allergies have been shown to be more likely to suffer from bronchiolitis.
Children who get bronchiolitis tend to have more than one episode during their childhood. Because of the frequent recurrence, parents often go to great lengths to reduce risk for further attacks. Limiting exposure to sick children, adults, or groups is very helpful. Limiting exposure to known allergens is another effective prevention.
Many parents use a humidifier in the child’s room to keep the humidity level of the air breathed by the child as high as possible. High humidity levels can help the symptoms of bronchiolitis tremendously.
Treatment for bronchiolitis is largely supportive. Some use of antiviral medications has been tried, with mixed results. Antibiotics are rarely used and generally reserved for children who get a bacterial infection secondarily. There is some evidence that bronchiodilators may be effective in improving breathing. These are inhaled medications used to open the airways in the lungs and improve airflow.
Children should be given a good amount of fluids to prevent dehydration that is commonly seen in bronchiolitis. In very severe cases, breathing may become so labored and difficult that hospitalization is necessary for a short time. While in the hospital, a child is able to get breathing treatments and supplemental oxygen.
If you suspect that your child is coming down with an infection, or is having difficultly breathing, be sure to contact a doctor as soon as possible. Difficulty breathing in a child always needs to be taken seriously. Do not wait to get in touch with a doctor or appropriate medical professional.