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Bronchiolitis (wheezing babies)

Bronchiolitis; wheeze; asthma; breathing; cough; ;

Bronchiolitis is an illness that causes babies and young children to wheeze. It most often happens around the beginning of winter.


Some children who have had bronchiolitis as a baby may wheeze when they get other viral infections when they are older.

What is bronchiolitis?

  • Bronchiolitis affects the bronchioles, the smallest airways in the lungs.
  • It is usually caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) but can be caused by influenza viruses, rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and other viruses.
  • It affects children under 12 months, most frequently between 1 month and 6 months of age. Young babies can become seriously ill with the infection.
  • 10-20% of babies with bronchiolitis need to go to hospital. Premature babies and babies with congenital heart disease or cystic fibrosis are at greater risk of becoming ill with this infection.
  • Nearly all young children will have an RSV infection in the first 2 years of their life but only about 10% will get bronchiolitis.

More information

There is more information about bronchiolitis on these websites

Royal Children's Hospital (Melbourne - Australia) 

Raising Children Network (Australia) 

Signs and symptoms

  • The infection causes the linings of the airways to swell, narrowing the airways, and causing breathing difficulties, wheezing and coughing.
  • Babies usually develop the symptoms of a cold eg snuffly nose, sneezing and a mild temperature. After 1 to 3 days this develops into a cough, wheeziness, rapid breathing, flaring of the nostrils and signs that breathing is hard work (for example the ribs move in and out more than usual) .
  • The baby may be coughing so much and having such difficulty breathing that it is hard for her or him to drink. There is a risk of dehydration if children do not get enough drinks.


  • Often the illness is mild, and does not need any special treatment.
  • If a baby is very distressed, and having trouble feeding, he may need to be admitted to hospital where he can be closely observed, given oxygen and sometimes fluid through a drip (intravenous therapy).
  • Vaporisers, humidifiers, or using other ways to put steam into the air, have not been shown to be helpful for babies with bronchiolitis.
  • Bronchiolitis looks like and sounds like asthma, but the treatments that work for older children with asthma usually do not help with bronchiolitis.

What you can do

  • Seek urgent help if a child has difficulty breathing, is breathing fast or is unable to feed normally because of coughing and wheezing.
  • If your baby is unwell but not as short of breath see a doctor if he does not start to get well after one or two days.
  • Give your baby extra small feeds while he is working hard at breathing, and keep things quiet for him (don't take him out if possible).
  • Because bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, the infection can be passed on to other young children, so keep him home from child care or other places where there may be young children.
  • Older children and adults can also catch the viruses that cause bronchiolitis and develop a bad cold and often bronchitis. 

See the topic 'Feeling sick' for more ideas.

Other health problems from bronchiolitis

  • Children usually recover fully from bronchiolitis within a week to 10 days. If your child does not seem to be getting better, it may be because she has another infection on top of the bronchiolitis (such as pneumonia) which can need extra treatment.
  • After having bronchiolitis some children are more likely to wheeze when they get other virus infections such as colds. They may also be more likely to have allergy symptoms.
  • Many children who develop asthma have had bronchiolitis as babies. It is not clear whether a child developed bronchiolitis because that child was at increased risk of developing asthma, or bronchiolitis increased the risk of asthma.
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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