Colds and Respiratory Infections in Babies and Toddlers: What Is Bronchiolitis?

Babies and toddlers often get colds and stuffy noses. This video provides ideas for how to help them feel better at home and explains when to call the doctor.


Colds and Respiratory Infections in Babies and Toddlers: What Is Bronchiolitis?

Narrator: Respiratory infections and bronchiolitis in children.

Babies and toddlers often get stuffy noses and coughs. The colds and viruses all small children get, can lead to trouble breathing. Let’s talk about how to help them.

In this video, we will: explain what causes respiratory infections and bronchiolitis in babies. Explain how to suction your baby’s nose and other ways to help at home. Tell you when it’s time to call the doctor. The information in this video was for healthy children ages two months to two years. For children younger than two months, and children who have health problems such as prematurity or lung disease that make breathing troubles worse, call your doctor for advice.

What is a respiratory infection? 

Most respiratory infections are caused by viruses that target the nose, throat, and airways. Viruses like these can spread between people of all ages. The common cold, the flu, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV are some of the most common.

This video reviews general causes of respiratory infections and bronchiolitis in young children and how to care for them.

How to help your baby feel better.

It’s normal for young children to get several respiratory infections every year. They are more common in the winter. Babies usually breathe through their nose so even minor colds can cause breathing troubles. 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. The good news is that respiratory infections will clear up on their own thanks to your baby’s immune system. Let’s cover simple ways to help a baby with a stuffy nose. 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. It’s important to be gentle during this process. Suction before feeding to make it easier for your child to drink. Squeeze the air out of the bulb, keep the bulb squeezed, place the tip into the nostril, and then release the bulb.

This will pull the mucus out into the bulb. Squeeze the mucus into a tissue. Repeat with the other nostril. Wipe your baby’s nose with a soft tissue. If you’re using a different suctioning device, follow the directions that come with it. Now, here’s a quick explanation of what’s making your baby sick.

What is bronchiolitis? 

Sometimes in kids younger than two years, the respiratory virus moves from the nose and throat into the lungs. The inflammation in the airway tubes and the buildup of mucus causes them to breathe a little harder. 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.

What are the signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis in babies? 

Your child will have lots of mucus in the nose and lungs. Suctioning the nose will help. Because the infection causes the breathing tubes to swell, your child may develop a harsh cough and might breathe more rapidly or even start wheezing. Symptoms may get worse while the child is sleeping. Although the wheezing heard from bronchiolitis sounds like asthma, inhaler medicines such as Albuterol won’t help most babies. 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.

How long will bronchiolitis last? 

Get ready. Bronchiolitis usually lasts several weeks. Typically symptoms get worse for the first three to five days as the infection moves from the nose into the lungs. Then your baby should gradually get better, but the recovery may take two weeks or longer. Symptoms will go up and down. At times, your baby may seem worse again, especially right after they wake up. You’ll know your child is on the upswing when they start showing interest in playing, and start smiling again.

When should you call the doctor? 

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 if 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. 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’re alarmed, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.

The Big Picture

Remember, respiratory infections and bronchiolitis in kids are very common, and they usually clear up on their own. Make sure your baby’s getting enough to eat and drink. Your baby will need suctioning of the nose to help them breathe and eat comfortably. And they’ll also need lots of tender loving care. Thanks for learning with us.

Topics Covered: Bronchiolitis and Lower Respiratory Infections in Children

Related Centers and Programs: Primary Care Locations