Mother holding sick baby It’s normal for babies and toddlers to get stuffy noses and coughs several times a year.

Most of these respiratory infections are caused by viruses that target the nose, throat and airways. The common cold, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV are some of the most common.

The good news is that most respiratory infections will clear up on their own, thanks to your baby’s immune system.

What is bronchiolitis?

Sometimes in kids younger than 2 years, the virus moves from the nose and throat into the lungs. 

When the virus infects the small breathing tubes, called bronchioles, in the lungs, it is called bronchiolitis. (Bronchiolitis is not the same as bronchitis, which affects adult lungs in a different way.)

Your child will have a lot of mucus in the nose and lungs and may develop a harsh cough and breathe more rapidly or even start wheezing.

Symptoms may get worse while the child is sleeping. Expect your child to be cranky and tired. They will sleep more and drink and eat less. 

Your child might get a fever – and that’s not a bad thing. Fever is one of the ways the body fights infection.

Bronchiolitis usually lasts several weeks. Symptoms will go up and down – and that’s OK.

Helping your baby at home

Antibiotics don’t help infections caused by a virus, and we don’t have medicines to shorten the infection or reduce symptoms. Cold medicines aren’t safe or helpful for young children.

Although the wheezing heard with bronchiolitis sounds like asthma, inhaler medicines such as albuterol won’t help most babies.

But there are some simple ways to help a baby with a respiratory infection.

One way is to hold your baby upright in your arms – it’s easier to breathe in this position, so they will be more comfortable.

Another is to make sure your child is drinking and eating. Try giving small amounts of food and fluid frequently – fluids are most important, to keep your baby from becoming dehydrated.

If your child seems troubled by congestion and is too little to blow their nose on their own, the best way to help is to use a bulb syringe or other suction device to clear your child’s nose.

Suctioning might seem intimidating – and gross – at first, but it’s easy and will really help.

When should I call the doctor?

This information is for healthy children ages 2 months to 2 years.

For children younger than 2 months, and children who have health problems such as prematurity or lung disease that make breathing troubles worse, call your doctor for advice.

Most babies will get better on their own and won’t need to see the doctor.

You should call your pediatrician if:

  • It’s very difficult to calm your child down or wake them up, or
  • Your child isn’t drinking enough.
  • One very important reason to call your doctor is trouble breathing that doesn’t improve with suctioning.

Signs of trouble breathing include breathing very fast or when you can see your child’s skin sucking in between the ribs or above the collarbone (doctors call this intercostal retractions).

You should also call your doctor if you just feel something isn’t right – trust your gut.

If your child is struggling to breathe so much that you are alarmed, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.

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