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Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that affects the lower part of the lungs. The infection makes the small airways (‘bronchioles’) swell and fill with mucus. The bronchioles become narrow, making it hard for your child to breathe. The infection leads to wheezing, lots of coughing and some difficulty breathing.
Bronchiolitis usually affects young children under the age of two. Many viruses can cause this infection, but the most common is ‘Respiratory Syncytial Virus’ or RSV. RSV outbreaks happen between November and April each year, with a peak in January and February. Your child can get RSV infections many times, but as they get older the symptoms become milder.
At first, your child can have common cold symptoms, including:
About one to three days after the start of cold symptoms, the infection can spread to the small airways of the lungs causing bronchiolitis symptoms. Your child may have:
Bronchiolitis can be more severe in some children, especially if:
If your child has any symptoms of bronchiolitis, they should be seen and examined by a health care professional.
Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that lasts for 7 to 10 days. In some children the cough may continue for a few weeks even though they are feeling better.
Children with bronchiolitis can usually be managed at home. There is no medication that treats the infection. Antibiotics will not work since this is a viral infection.
Eating and drinking:
Fever and discomfort:
In the hospital, doctors and nurses will do many things to help your child’s breathing and keep them comfortable. This can include:
Bronchiolitis is very contagious. It is spread through close contact with someone who is sick and coughing or sneezing around you. Touching toys or sharing food with someone who is sick can spread the virus.
Children with bronchiolitis are contagious for almost a week after they first get sick. You should keep your child at home if they are coughing a lot or having any trouble breathing.
Other tips to prevent spreading the virus:
Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care.
Seek immediate medical attention if:
Know your options
It can be scary when your child is sick. But in most cases, you don’t need to go to the emergency department. If you’re unsure, visit ahs.ca/options to learn about the options so you can get the care you need.
The Alberta Health Services HEAL (Health Education and Learning) program was created by a team of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff who work at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Stollery Children’s Hospital, to support families and patients with up-to-date and useful information about common childhood health concerns. Learn more at ahs.ca/heal.
To see this information online and learn more, visit: ahs.ca/heal/page12436.aspx
Cough and wheeze in children: Bronchiolitis (HEAL)
For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information call Health Link at 811.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Alberta Health Services
This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.