Complications of bronchiolitis 

If your child develops complications from bronchiolitis, it's likely that they'll need hospital treatment.

Potential complications of bronchiolitis include:

  • cyanosis – a blue tinge to the skin caused by a lack of oxygen
  • dehydration – when the normal water content of the body is reduced
  • fatigue – extreme tiredness and a lack of energy
  • severe respiratory failure – an inability to breathe unaided

In rare cases, bronchiolitis can be accompanied by a bacterial lung infection called pneumonia. Pneumonia will need to be treated separately.

Contact your GP immediately if any of these complications occur.

In some cases – for example, if your child is having severe breathing difficulties – you will need to dial 999 and ask for an ambulance, so that your child can be taken to hospital. Read more about when to seek medical advice and when to call 999.

Who's at risk?

Although serious complications are rare, around 40,000 children with bronchiolitis are admitted to hospital in England each year for further monitoring or treatment.

If your child was born with a health problem, such as a heart or lung condition, there's an increased risk of complications from bronchiolitis. Their symptoms may be more severe and come on very rapidly. The infection may also make any symptoms of your child's underlying health problem worse.

Long-term effects of bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis doesn't usually cause long-term breathing problems. However, it can damage the cells in your child's airways. This damage can last for three to four months in some children, causing persistent wheezing and coughing.

Respiratory conditions in later life

There may be a link between bronchiolitis and developing respiratory conditions such as asthma in later life. However, the link isn't fully understood.

It's not clear whether having bronchiolitis as an infant increases your risk of developing asthma later in life, or whether there are environmental or genetic (inherited) factors that cause both bronchiolitis and asthma. 

If your child has repeated bouts of bronchiolitis, their risk of developing asthma later in life may be increased.

Page last reviewed: 10/09/2015

Next review due: 10/09/2017