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What to Know About RSV and Bronchiolitis

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A father wiping his toddler daughter's nose

Across the country, RSV infection is the leading cause of hospitalization with many more children sick at home. RSV is so common that most children have it by their second birthday. While most children do not require hospitalization, the very young or those with other medical conditions are at highest risk.

In some cases, RSV infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or a condition known as bronchiolitis. Bronchitis and bronchiolitis sound a lot alike. But they are two different conditions.

“Bronchitis is a swelling of the large airways in the lungs,” says Erin Frank, MD, pediatric hospitalist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s. “When the airways swell, they produce mucus. This can make you cough. People of any age can get bronchitis, but it’s most common in older children and adults.”

“As a parent of a baby or child younger than 2, you are more likely to encounter bronchiolitis,” Dr. Frank continues. “This differs from bronchitis in that it is an infection that causes inflammation in the bronchioles, which are the smallest airways in the lungs. It also clogs them with mucus. The swelling and mucus can make it harder for a young child to breathe.” In some cases, the symptoms can be severe.

Symptoms of Bronchiolitis

If your young child or infant has any of the following symptoms, it could be a sign of bronchiolitis:

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Fast breathing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

Call your provider or seek medical help if your child has:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Cough with bloody mucus
  • A fever of 100.4 degrees or higher in children younger than 2 months
  • A blue tinge to the fingertips or lips
  • Symptoms that last more than three weeks
  • Inability to keep down fluids or decreased wet diapers

Know Your Treatment Options

“In most cases, bronchiolitis will get better on its own in a few days to a few weeks. Antibiotics do not help heal this condition,” says Dr. Frank. "Instead, the focus is on easing symptoms.”

If the symptoms are not severe, you can often treat your child’s bronchiolitis at home. Here are some ways to help your child feel better:

  • Help them get plenty of rest.
  • Provide lots of fluids.
  • Use saline nose drops. A suction bulb can help remove mucus from your baby’s nose.
  • Have your child breathe in steam from a hot shower. (Be sure to sit in the steamy bathroom with them to make sure they’re safe.)
  • Use over-the-counter pain relief medicines, such as acetaminophen, as directed by your healthcare provider. Check every dose carefully, especially for babies and children.

With multiple respiratory viruses affecting children as flu season approaches, families are encouraged to get the flu shot to protect everyone age 6 months and older.

Related Links

The highly specialized pediatric pulmonologists at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's work closely together and across multiple disciplines to diagnose, treat, manage and prevent various lung diseases in children, ranging from common breathing problems to rare pulmonary disorders. Learn more.