Bronchiolitis is blockage of the small airway in the lungs due to a viral infection. It usually only occurs in children less than two years of age. Symptoms may include fever, cough, runny nose, wheezing, and breathing problems. More severe cases may be associated with nasal flaring, grunting, or the skin between the ribs pulling in with breathing. If the child has not been able to feed properly, signs of dehydration may be present.
Bronchiolitis is usually the result of infection by respiratory syncytial virus (72% of cases) or human rhinovirus (26% of cases). Diagnosis is generally based on symptoms. Tests such as a chest X-ray or viral testing are not routinely needed. Urine testing may be considered in those with a fever.
There is no specific treatment. Supportive care at home is generally sufficient. Occasionally hospital admission for oxygen, support with feeding, or intravenous fluids is required. Evidence for antibiotics, antivirals, bronchodilators, or nebulized hypertonic saline or epinephrine is either unclear or not supportive.
About 10% to 30% of children under the age of two years are affected by bronchiolitis at some point in time. It more commonly occurs in the winter in the Northern hemisphere. The risk of death among those who are admitted to hospital is about 1%. Outbreaks of the condition were first described in the 1940s.
Signs and symptoms
In a typical case, an infant under two years of age develops cough, wheeze, and shortness of breath over one or two days. Crackles or wheeze are typical findings on listening to the chest with a stethoscope. The infant may be breathless for several days. After the acute illness, it is common for the airways to remain sensitive for several weeks, leading to recurrent cough and wheeze.
Some signs of severe disease include:
- poor feeding (less than half of usual fluid intake in preceding 24 hours)
- significantly decreased activity
- history of stopping breathing
- respiratory rate >70/min
- presence of nasal flaring and/or grunting
- severe chest wall recession (Hoover's sign)
- bluish skin
The term usually refers to acute viral bronchiolitis, a common disease in infancy. This is most commonly caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV, also known as human pneumovirus). Other viruses which may cause this illness include metapneumovirus, influenza, parainfluenza, coronavirus, adenovirus, and rhinovirus.
Children born prematurely (less than 35 weeks), with a low birth weight or who have from congenital heart disease may have higher rates of bronchiolitis and are more likely to require hospital admission. There is evidence that breastfeeding provides some protection against bronchiolitis.
The diagnosis is typically made by clinical examination. Chest X-ray is sometimes useful to exclude bacterial pneumonia, but not indicated in routine cases.
Testing for the specific viral cause can be done but has little effect on management and thus is not routinely recommended. RSV testing by direct immunofluorescence testing on nasopharyngeal aspirate had a sensitivity of 61% and specificity of 89%. Identification of those who are RSV-positive can help for: disease surveillance, grouping ("cohorting") people together in hospital wards to prevent cross infection, predicting whether the disease course has peaked yet, reducing the need for other diagnostic procedures (by providing confidence that a cause has been identified).
Infants with bronchiolitis between the age of two and three months have a second infection by bacteria (usually a urinary tract infection) less than 6% of the time. Preliminary studies have suggested that elevated procalcitonin levels may assist clinicians in determining the presence of bacterial coinfection, which could prevent unnecessary antibiotic use and costs.
Prevention of bronchiolitis relies strongly on measures to reduce the spread of the viruses that cause respiratory infections (that is, handwashing, and avoiding exposure to those symptomatic with respiratory infections). In addition to good hygiene an improved immune system is a great tool for prevention. One way to improve the immune system is to feed the infant with breast milk, especially during the first month of life. Immunizations are available for premature infants who meet certain criteria (some cardiac and respiratory disorders) such as Palivizumab (a monoclonal antibody against RSV). Passive immunization therapy requires monthly injections during winter.
Treatment of bronchiolitis is usually focused on the symptoms instead of the infection itself since the infection will run its course and complications are typically from the symptoms themselves. Without active treatment half of cases will go away in 13 days and 90% in three weeks.
Measures for which the evidence is unclear include nebulized epinephrine, nasal suctioning, and nebulized hypertonic saline. Treatments which the evidence does not support include salbutamol, steroids, antibiotics, antivirals, chest physiotherapy, and cool mist.
Management | Bronchodilators
Bronchodilators in children with bronchiolitis are not routinely recommended as evidence does not support a change in outcomes with such use.
A 2017 review found inhaled epinephrine with corticosteroids did not change the need for hospitalization on the time spent in hospital.
Management | Hypertonic saline
Nebulized hypertonic saline (3%) is controversial with some reviews finding benefit and others not.
Management | Non-effective
Currently other medications do not yet have evidence to support their use. Ribavirin is an antiviral drug which does not appear to be effective for bronchiolitis. Antibiotics are often given in case of a bacterial infection complicating bronchiolitis, but have no effect on the underlying viral infection. Corticosteroids have no proven benefit in bronchiolitis treatment and are not advised. DNAse has not been found to be effective.
Bronchiolitis typically affects infants and children younger than two years, principally during the fall and winter . Bronchiolitis hospitalization has a peak incidence between two and six months of age and remains a significant cause of respiratory disease during the first two years of life. It is a leading cause of hospitalization in infants and young children.