Bronchiolitis: When it’s more than just a cold

“No, it can’t wait. Did you drive here? Is there someone who can go home and pack a bag for you? Ideally you’d go straight there.”

Have you ever taken your baby to a routine GP appointment, and left with an instruction to take him straight to hospital? It’s scary.

More than a cold

It was the day after my daughter’s christening that she developed a cold. It had been a lovely day, warm and full of smiles and sunshine. Everything was perfect, we were all well, and the day went beautifully. So I was surprised when she started with a snotty nose and a persistent cough, which got worse as the day went on. It was just a cold though, and she’d had them before, so I gave her some paracetamol and put her to bed as normal.

Not surprisingly, the cough got worse during the night, as she lay in her cot, and I was up several times nursing her and cuddling her back to sleep. It was similar the next day, but she was fine, happy, her usual giggly and into-everything self. That night I clock-watched as she coughed and heaved so much that no-one could sleep, and decided I’d take her to the GP in the morning. It was just a cold, I knew they wouldn’t give her antibiotics for that, but really, I should just check, to be on the safe side.

It turned out it was more than a cold. As the doctor examined her she pointed out that her ribs were showing in between breaths. “She’s tiring,” she told me. “Look how hard she’s working to breathe.” The next thing I knew, I was driving my baby to hospital, shaking with the shock that I had missed something that needed hospital attention. We were admitted, and spent the next two nights on the children’s ward.

Bronchiolitis is more than a cold

Nebuliser image courtesy of Shutterstock

What followed was the most stressful thing I’d ever experienced in her little life. A nebuliser attached to a machine that misted Salbutamol (Ventolin, the asthma medication) was hooked up to a machine and held over her face. I had to keep the mask on her face for 20 minutes while she writhed and struggled, for breath and for freedom. She cried and screamed, I cried and shook. When they tell you your baby is struggling to breathe it’s the most upsetting thing in the world.

She recovered though, with the help of some steroid medication, and we were sent home with asthma inhalers to be administered every two hours round the clock. She hated it, and we held her down to force the mask over her little face until she was better, and we could relax again. It was a process we were to repeat many times over the next three years, until her lungs matured enough to cope with a viral illness.

What is Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a very common infection of the smallest airways of the lungs, and happens to around a third of babies before their first birthday. It’s caused by a virus very similar to the common cold, and begins with the same symptoms, which is why many parents don’t worry about it until their child is quite poorly. By the time it is diagnosed, a baby is sometimes struggling to breathe, so prompt treatment is essential. Bronchiolitis is usually worse in babies who were premature or who have a heart or lung condition.

On average paediatricians say they spend 45% of their time during winter months looking after children with bronchiolitis. But over half of parents of young children are unaware of the illness, so the More Than a Cold campaign has been launched to raise awareness and let parents know how to spot it more quickly.

Symptoms of Bronchiolitis

Symptoms are very similar to those of a common cold, but specifically you might notice:

  • A slight high temperature (fever)
  • A dry and persistent raspy cough
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Rapid or noisy breathing (wheezing)

Often the virus is mild, and the child recovers over the next couple of week, but if these symptoms continue or worsen, and particularly if feeding difficulty has continued for more than 24 hours, or very fast breathing is evident, seek medical attention quickly.

How to avoid Bronchiolitis

In the same way as you’d try to avoid a cold, or the flu, keeping good hygiene is the best way to limit your baby’s risk of coming into contact with viruses that cause bronchiolitis. In addition, anything that would adversely affect the lungs will make the risk of developing bronchiolitis higher, so don’t smoke around your child, and keep babies out of smoky or dusty environments, especially if they have a cold.

Read more about bronchiolitis symptoms on the More than a cold website.


7 thoughts on “Bronchiolitis: When it’s more than just a cold”

  1. This was us just after Christmas! Little boy was a month old n he woke on Christmas eve with a cough to go with the cold he already had. We ended up being taken tp a&e by paramedic car at 7am on Sunday morning & being admitted to children’s hospital for 3 days of oxygen & ng tube feeds.

    • Oh what horrid timing, I’m so sorry! It is an incredibly stressful thing to go through, to see your child struggle to breathe. The great thing is that the treatment is relatively simple and pretty much always successful if you get there in time. Thank goodness you did.

  2. Thanks for raising awareness about bronchiolitis. One of my daughters was just 6 weeks old when we were told to go straight to the children’s ward at our local hospital and it was very scary. Fortunately she recovered fairly quickly after receiving antibiotics and steroids.

  3. Just stumbled across your blog (only been at this for 3 months) and this post. NC, my now 6 month old, had silent reflux for 4 months followed immediately by a UTI (4 nights in hospital) and then immediately after that bronchiolitis; I honestly thought he was going to die but as you say it is a really common condition and he was fine. It is so horrible when your baby is hospitalised and weak and I do wish I’d known about bronchiolitis … thank you for this post; you’re helping to increase awareness and education and it’s vital.

    • It’s the most stressful thing isn’t it? They’re so precious, and you don’t realise quite how hardy they are, so when they’re in hospital it feels like the end of the world. We had hideous reflux too, isn’t it awful? Both such common things though, and kids get through them fine, as long as you know what you’re dealing with!


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