According to the Mayo Clinic, bronchiolitis is a viral infection of the bronchioles, the smallest airways found in the lungs, most commonly caused by the respiratory syncytial virus, also referred to as RSV. It is an infectious disease that can be contracted by touch or through the air. When the airways become infected, they swell and secrete mucus which collects in the bronchioles, making breathing difficult. Children under the age of two, especially infants between three and six months old, are most commonly affected.
Children who are not breast-fed, live in a crowded environment, are exposed to cigarette smoke, attend day care, or were born prematurely, are at higher risk of attracting bronchiolitis. Individuals with upper respiratory infections should be around infants as little as possible. Frequent hand washing and wearing a surgical mask when handling the infant will reduce the risk of infection.
Adults, older children, and healthy infants usually regain their full health after one to two weeks. Premature infants or individuals with heart or lung problems are at higher risk to develop more serious symptoms.
The first symptom after a person has been infected is usually a runny or stuffy nose. A low-grade fever may also be present, although that is not always the case. Wheezing, difficulty breathing, and rapid heartbeat are also common symptoms.
PubMed Health states that mild cases of bronchiolitis usually clear up by themselves, but sometimes more serious symptoms require medical attention. Children should be taken to the doctor or hospital if their breath is very rapid and shallow. Forty breaths or more per minute are a clear sign that the child does not get enough oxygen. Parents can also watch for flaring nostrils and retraction of the muscles between the ribs with each breath. Both of these signs indicate breathing difficulty. Other danger signs include vomiting, exhaustion, lethargy, and prolonged audible wheezing.
The most dangerous symptom is cyanosis, manifested by bluish skin, especially around the fingernails and the mouth. This is a sign that the body does not get enough oxygen. Emergency medical attention is needed immediately.
Since bronchiolitis is a viral disease, antibiotics are ineffective. Mild symptoms can be relieved by keeping the sick child away from cigarette smoke, by using a humidifier to keep the air moist, and by keeping the child well hydrated and rested.
If the child is hospitalized, oxygen therapy and intravenous hydration are among the most often used treatments. Antiviral medications are only given in extremely severe cases.