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Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that causes an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs. It can affect people of all ages, but the most severe symptoms usually occur in young children and infants.
"Bronchiolitis is one of the most common reasons that children come into the hospital and the emergency department in the wintertime. And RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is the most common cause of bronchiolitis," says Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Mayo Clinic. Respiratory syncytial virus is a common virus that infects just about every child by the age of 2. It usually causes mild, cold like symptoms but may lead to more severe lung infections, such as bronchiolitis. Outbreaks of the RSV infection occur every winter.
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Bronchiolitis typically lasts for two to three weeks and often resolves on its own. Infants may need to be hospitalized if they are having trouble breathing or are dehydrated. "The most important thing is that they have their blood oxygen levels checked to determine whether they need extra oxygen and also to check their hydration status. One of the most common things we see in babies that are trying to fight this type of infection is that they can get dehydrated because they’re not feeding well,” says Dr. Rajapakse.
Bronchiolitis and bronchitis sound similar, but they are not the same illness. "Bronchiolitis is inflammation of the smaller branches of the airways, which tends to affect younger children," says Dr. Rajapakse. "Bronchitis refers to inflammation of the larger airways, and that tends to affect older children and adults."
Antibiotics will not treat viral infections. Good hand hygiene is one way to protect yourself and others from the virus that causes bronchiolitis. "These infections are spread by respiratory secretions. They are easily spread on your hands from person to person, and, so, washing your hands before handling your child, or if you’re handling any respiratory secretions, will help to decrease the risk of transmission," says Dr. Rajapakse.
There are no vaccines for the most common causes of bronchiolitis, including respiratory syncytial virus and rhinovirus, which is the common cold. However, an annual flu shot is recommended for everyone older than 6 months.