Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection in babies younger than 12 months. The infection causes inflammation and mucus to build up in the airways and makes it more difficult to breathe. Bronchiolitis is usually mild. Most infants get better in 7-10 days, but the cough can last up to a month.
What causes it?
Bronchiolitis can be caused by different viruses. The most common is called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). A bronchiolitis infection is contagious and spreads easily when people don’t cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Keep your children away from other family members and friends when they are sick, so they don’t spread their germs.
Signs and symptoms
Bronchiolitis starts with common cold symptoms such as:
- runny nose
- mild cough
These can get worse in a few days with:
- fast or laboured breathing
- wheezing sound when breathing out
- pauses between breaths
- irritability and fever
- trouble feeding (this is because babies only breathe through their nose).
The symptoms are often worse at night. Most children start to improve after 4 days.
The infection may be worse and last longer in children under 3 months, premature babies or children with lung or heart problems.
There is no medicine or antibiotics that can cure bronchiolitis. If your child has bronchiolitis, you can only treat the symptoms to help them feel more comfortable.
Infants with a severe infection may be admitted to hospital where they can be watched and treated with fluids and/or oxygen.
Care at home
Most babies with bronchiolitis can be treated at home. Here are some things you can do:
- give your child paracetamol (in recommended doses) to help them feel more comfortable. Follow the instructions on the bottle or package for the correct dosage. Do not give your child more than what is recommended.
- make sure your baby is getting enough fluids. If breastfeeding, smaller feeds given more often may help.
- clear their nose with saltwater solution drops or spray. You can get this from a pharmacy.
- keep your child away from cigarette smoke.
Ask for an interpreter if you need one.
When to see a doctor
See your GP if your child has any common symptoms.
In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance, especially if your child:
- was born prematurely
- is younger than 3 months
- has chronic lung disease, congenital heart disease or they are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system)
- is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
- is very sleepy and difficult to wake
- has a skin colour that looks lighter than normal, is sweaty and/or or looks blue.
If you're not sure whether to go to an emergency department, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) and speak to a registered nurse.
Call Triple Zero (000) if your baby is having a hard time breathing or if their lips turn blue.
Last updated: October 2023