Bronchitis in Children: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Bronchitis in Babies: Causes, Symptoms, Risks & Treatments

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Gunjan Baweja (Paediatrician)
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Respiratory disorders such as bronchitis could change from acute to chronic if not identified at an early stage. Learning how to identify bronchitis helps parents seek medical intervention on time, and save the child’s lungs from infection and inflammation. This article discusses the methods of diagnosing bronchitis in children.

Video: Bronchitis in Babies – Causes, Symptoms, Risks & Treatment

What Is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis, in general, refers to the infection or more commonly inflammation of the lining of a child’s bronchial tubes.

Bronchial tubes are the large air channels that connect the windpipe to the lungs. The lining of the bronchial tubes is very delicate, and produces mucus, which has an antibacterial action. The mucus safeguards your child’s respiratory system, keeping it free from infections. Inflammation of the tubes causes excessive production of mucus, making it difficult to breathe, and causing bronchitis.

When your child has a cold, sore throat, flu, or sinus infection, the virus that causes it can spread to the bronchi. Once the germs reach there, the airways become swollen, inflamed, and partially blocked with mucus. It is important that you watch out for signs of bronchitis in babies at an early stage to prevent it from spreading further.

Allergic bronchitis in children could be caused by bacteria, viruses, allergens or irritants. In infants, bronchitis is called bronchiolitis, and denotes the inflammation of the airways, called the bronchioles. The symptoms and cure of both bronchitis and bronchiolitis are almost the same. The process of treating bronchitis in infants aims to ease the respiratory process and bring down the infection in the lungs.

Bronchitis can be classified into two types:

1. Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis occurs chiefly in children younger than two years of age, and children between the ages of nine and fifteen.

It is observed that while it is mostly caused by a viral infection, a bacterial infection can also have the same effect. The onset of acute bronchitis in children is rather quick, and it leads to severe symptoms.

2. Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is common in people older than 45 years of age, but it can affect kids, teens, and young adults as well.

If your child has chronic bronchitis, he will take longer than usual to recover from a cold or any other respiratory infection.

Chronic bronchitis could be a long-lasting condition. In this case, too, the lining of the bronchial tubes gets inflamed and irritated, and it produces excessive mucus. However, the inflammation lasts anywhere from a few months to years. Children exposed to passive smoke and dust can develop this condition and end up with severe complications, such as pneumonia.

Causes of Bronchitis

A study reveals that 90% cases of acute bronchitis occur due to viral infection, and the remaining 10% are bacterial infections. Your child may also get repeated attacks of acute bronchitis, which could remain undiagnosed and untreated. Industrial pollution and cigarette smoke could result in chronic bronchitis.

Viral infections that can result in acute bronchitis include:

  • Influenza
  • Adenovirus
  • Rhinovirus
  • Respiratory syncytial virus
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Human bocavirus

Many times, a secondary bacterial infection could result in bronchitis. This could mainly occur in in children who have immunodeficiency or cystic fibrosis. The bacteria that could cause infection include Mycoplasma, Chlamydia pneumonia, H. influenza, M. catarrhal and S. pneumonia.

Other reasons of bronchitis in children are:

If you see the symptoms of bronchitis in your child, it is important to see a doctor who will be able to identify the root cause of the attack, and treat it. Here are a few symptoms to watch out for if your child has a cold and fever.

Symptoms of Bronchitis in Children

Bronchitis can be mistaken for a common cold initially, but if the cold and fever persist, you may need to look out for certain symptoms.

Acute Bronchitis Symptoms

  1. You need to listen carefully to your child’s cough, as this will help you identify whether your child has bronchitis or not. Usually, children infected with bronchitis make a wheezing sound as they cough.
  2. In the early stages, your child may show symptoms of common cold, like a sore throat, congestion, lethargy, a runny nose, chills, chest pain, mild wheezing and a slight fever which eventually turns into a dry cough producing greenish or yellowish mucus.
  3. Sometimes the child may experience severe respiratory problems, which could include difficulty in breathing, flaring of nostrils, fatigue, loss of sleep and appetite, and increased heartbeat.

Chronic Bronchitis Symptoms

The prevalence of the following symptoms warrants immediate medical attention:

  • Coughing incessantly for more than a week
  • Developing fever or chills
  • Cyanosis (turns the skin blue and pale due to insufficient supply of oxygen to the lungs)
  • Thick mucus that is streaked with blood in very severe cases
  • Shortness of breath and breathing difficulty even with mild physical activity
  • Tightness and soreness of the entire chest and severe pain with each cough
  • Severe wheezing
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Headaches

If you suspect that your child has bronchitis, see a paediatrician immediately to confirm the diagnosis.

How to Diagnose Bronchitis in Babies

Bronchitis can be diagnosed in an infant with a simple few tests.

1. Physical Examination

Generally, children with bronchitis make a rattling, wheezing sound that emanates from their lungs when they breathe and cough.

2. Medical History

The medical practitioner may inquire about your family’s health to see a history of asthma and to check whether anyone in contact with your child smokes.

3. Chest X-ray

Chest X-ray

The doctor will take an X-ray to make sure that your child does not suffer from lung problems due to exposure to passive smoking, and to know the extent of congestion.

4. Sputum Test

In this test, the child’s mucus is taken to check if he is infected, and if he suffers from other health conditions like diphtheria or whooping cough. It will also reveal if your child is allergic to agents like dust.

5. Pulmonary Function Test

This breathing test makes use of a device known as a spirometer. It helps doctors identify asthma in children

6. Pulse Oximetry

Sometimes, children with bronchitis suffer from cyanosis and depletion of oxygen in the blood which causes the skin to turn blue. A test called pulse oximetry is conducted to check for cyanosis.

Is Bronchitis Contagious to Infants?

The pathogens causing bronchitis are contagious, and can spread via tiny drops of fluid that are secreted from an infected child an become airborne through sneezes, coughs, or laughs.

Is Bronchitis Contagious to Infants?

If your child is exposed to another infected child, there is a high risk of coming in contact with the pathogens. Infants in child care centres could easily get infected if preventive measures are not taken.

How Long Does Bronchitis Last?

Viral bronchitis generally lasts for around 7 to 10 days in infants. However, some may have symptoms such as coughing that could last for around 3 to 4 weeks.

Bronchitis usually takes 1-2 weeks to ease, and generally, doesn’t cause any complications. If your child’s coughing and wheezing persists, some short-term anti-asthma medication is advisable. A virus usually causes bronchitis, and antibiotics don’t help as they don’t combat viruses.

However, remember that there is no cure for chronic bronchitis. The treatment, to a large extent, helps minimise the symptoms, but the symptoms never completely disappear. They keep returning, and your child may need regular and long-term treatment for it.

Treatment for Bronchitis

Treatment is determined for each child based on several factors including the age, medical history, and the severity of the condition. The treatment of bronchitis in toddlers will also depend on whether the child is suffering from acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis.

Treatment for Acute Bronchitis

Not all cases of acute bronchitis require the administering of antibiotics. Extra care must be taken to ensure hygiene around the child, included frequent hand-washing and avoiding dust or second-hand smoke. The treatment for the ailment may include:

  • Analgesics to help relieve discomfort and fever
  • Medicines to cure a cough
  • Higher fluid intake to help thin the mucus
  • Rest

Treatment for Chronic Bronchitis

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis may need to be treated with antibiotics. The treatment may include the following:

  • Higher Fluid Intake: Anywhere between eight and ten glasses of water every day helps to thin the mucus.
  • Bed Rest: Rest helps your child feel better and gives the bronchial tubes an opportunity to heal.
  • Antibiotics: It’s not just the effects of chronic bronchitis but other infections of pneumonia that affect your child as well, due to lower immunity levels. Your paediatrician may prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight and ward off infections.
  • Bronchodilators: Sometimes bronchodilators are suggested to dilate the constricted airways to enable your child to breathe without pain or discomfort. These are medicines that increase the length of the bronchi. The occasional flare-ups of the symptoms like wheezing and non-responsiveness to bronchodilators might make the doctor prescribe corticosteroids to ease the wheezing and inflammation.
  • Decongestant: It removes mucus from the irritated and inflamed airways, making it easier for your child to breathe unhindered.
  • Oxygen Therapy: The result of pulse oximetry might show that the levels of oxygen in your child’s blood are below par, in which case he will receive oxygen therapy. In this therapy, additional oxygen will be provided to the tissues and cells so that they get the required nutrients.

This therapy ensures that your child’s growth and development stay on track. It involves wearing a face mask or inserting a nasal cannula or tube into the windpipe. The mask, cannula or the tube remains connected to the cylinder containing oxygen. This therapy is usually given in a hospital, but your kid can receive it at home as well.

How Can I Take Care of My Child?

Most cases of bronchitis are mild, and don’t need specific professional treatment. Some simple remedies for bronchitis can ease the symptoms of the infection. However, these should be attempted only after getting a green signal from your physician.

Home Remedies for Bronchitis

  1. Lots of water: The best treatment for most kids is time to recover, and plenty of fluids. Make sure that your child drinks eight to ten glasses of water a day. This will help relieve congestion and prevent dehydration.
  2. Cool-Mist Humidifier: Have a humidifier sprayed in your house so that your little one is safe from dust irritants. It helps the child breathe more easily, making the air less dry. A cool-mist humidifier in your child’s bedroom or play area during the day would decrease the probability of getting affected by a very long margin especially if you live in a dry climate. Even moistening the air will help him breathe in a better way.
  3. Vitamin C: Cranberries and lemon juice have high Vitamin C content, which is an immunity booster and helps your child win the fight against pathogens.
  4. Honey: Honey has not only anti-inflammatory but anti-bacterial properties as well. Easing the inflammation of the lining of the airways would be easier and would minimise coughing. Besides, a few spoons of honey in warm water would also help a great deal with reducing congestion.
  5. Chest Rub: A chest rub with menthol, eucalyptus or camphor warms up the skin. The rubbing action helps increase the blood flow to the chest region. This dilates the bronchial tubes and enable your child to breathe better.
  6. Turmeric: It has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties that can help your child. Mix a teaspoon of freshly ground turmeric root in some warm milk and give it as an everyday supplement to your child.
  7. Epsom Salt: Epsom salt in bath water can ease the constriction of the bronchial tubes and clear toxins from the body. Inhaling the steam of Epsom salts also helps in clearing the respiratory tract.
  8. Saline nose drops: With the help of a bulb syringe and saline nose drops, you can clear nasal congestion. This can be especially useful just before feeding and sleeping. If you can keep the child in a slightly upright position, it will help reduce the effort involved with breathing.
  9. Acetaminophen: This can be given to reduce fever and make your child more comfortable. Be sure to give the appropriate dose based on your child’s weight and in consultation with a medical practitioner.

Complications and Risks

If your child experiences any of the symptoms mentioned below, he is at a high risk of bronchitis:

  • Has a cough for more than three weeks
  • Coughs so hard that he cannot sleep at night
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • High fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)
  • Mucus has blood

If bronchitis is left undiagnosed, the child is susceptible to developing pneumonia. And, if the bronchitis is chronic, he may also suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

1. Pneumonia

According to statistics, 5% cases of children with bronchitis develop pneumonia. Chronic bronchitis results in a bacterial infection in the form of pneumonia. The tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs are affected by these bacteria.

Due to lower levels of immunity, infection-causing bacteria can lead to pneumonia very easily in a child. Children become susceptible to pneumonia if they have a weak immune system.

Symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • High fever
  • Breathlessness even when not physically active
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Loss of appetite and sleep
  • Pain in the chest (due to chest infection in infants)
  • Persistent cough
  • Sweating and chills
  • Lethargy

2. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

This disease limits the ability of the lungs to function normally and causes breathing difficulties. It also makes your child more susceptible to other lung infections. Since the lungs sustain irreversible damage, treatment and lifestyle changes are the only way to slow down the progress of the disease and allow your child to lead a more active life.

Never ignore a cough that your child has and ensure an early diagnosis and the right treatment. Hence, bronchitis does not have to be a cause for concern.

How to Prevent My Child from Getting Bronchitis

To protect your child from bronchitis, it is necessary to follow regular practices of hygiene, which include frequent hand sanitization, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and distancing him from those who are ill. In addition to this:

  • Teach your child to follow healthy practices like washing his hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating.
  • Give nutritious and healthy food to develop a strong immune system.
  • Keep your child away from any source of infection.
  • Give your child the required vaccines periodically.
  • Smoking could trigger chronic bronchitis.
  • Keep your surroundings clean from pathogens.

When Should I Contact the Doctor?

If bronchitis is acute or is occurring frequently, there is a great probability that the child has asthma. Children who have undiagnosed asthma for several years are most susceptible. Contact the doctor the moment you observe symptoms. It is better to nip an infection in the bud rather than prolong it and face problems later.

Also Read: Bronchiolitis in Infants

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