Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection that affects babies and children under 2. It's usually mild and can be treated at home, but it can be serious.
Bronchiolitis is different from bronchitis, which causes a cough with lots of mucus and can affect people of all ages.
Check if it's bronchiolitis
The early symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to a cold, such as sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, a cough and a slightly high temperature of 38C.
A child with bronchiolitis may then get other symptoms, such as:
- breathing more quickly
- finding it difficult to feed or eat
- noisy breathing (wheezing)
- becoming irritable
Symptoms are usually worst between days 3 and 5, and the cough usually gets better in 3 weeks.
Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if:
- your child is having difficulty breathing – you may notice grunting noises or their tummy sucking under their ribs
- there are pauses when your child breathes
- your child's skin, tongue or lips are blue
- your child is floppy and will not wake up or stay awake
As a parent, you may know if your child seems seriously unwell and should trust your own judgement.
Urgent advice: Ask for an urgent GP appointment or call 111 if:
- your child has had a cold and it's getting worse
- your child is feeding or eating much less than normal
- your child has had a dry nappy for 12 hours or more, or shows other signs of dehydration
- your baby is under 3 months and has a temperature of 38C, or is older than 3 months and has a temperature of 39C or higher
- your baby feels hotter than usual when you touch their back or chest, or feels sweaty
- your child is very tired or irritable
Treatments for bronchiolitis
There's no specific treatment for bronchiolitis. It usually gets better on its own and you can look after your child at home.
But it can be serious in some children, who may need to be treated in hospital.
give children's paracetamol to babies and children over 2 months old or ibuprofen to babies and children over 3 months old – but do not give aspirin to a child under 16
try using salt water (saline) drops if your child's nose is blocked
keep your child upright as much as possible when they're awake – this will help them breathe more easily
encourage your child to drink lots of fluids – try smaller feeds more often in babies, and give older children extra water or diluted fruit juice
do not smoke around your child
do not try to lower your child's temperature by sponging them with cool water or taking off all their clothes
There are some things you can do to lower the chances of your child getting bronchiolitis or spreading the viruses that cause it, such as:
- wash your hands and your child's hands often
- wash or wipe down toys and clean surfaces regularly
- use disposable tissues and throw them away as soon as you've used them
- keep newborn babies away from anyone with a cold or the flu – especially if they're under 2 months old or were premature
It's also important not to smoke around your child. Children who breathe in cigarette smoke have a higher risk of getting bronchiolitis.
Children at risk of severe bronchiolitis
Some children may have a higher risk of getting seriously ill with bronchiolitis.
This includes children who:
- were born very prematurely
- have a heart or lung condition
- have a weakened immune system
These children may be able to have treatment in the winter (between October and March) to stop them getting severe bronchiolitis.
Causes of bronchiolitis
Bronchiolitis is caused by a viral infection, usually the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
RSV is very common and spreads easily in coughs and sneezes. Almost all children have had it by the time they're 2.
In older children and adults, RSV may cause a cough or cold, but in young children it can cause bronchiolitis.
Page last reviewed: 13 April 2022
Next review due: 13 April 2025