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Acute Bronchitis in Children

What is acute bronchitis in children?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the large breathing tubes (bronchi) in the lungs. The illness can be short term (acute) or long term (chronic). Acute bronchitis means that the symptoms often develop quickly and don’t last long. Most cases are mild.

What causes acute bronchitis in a child?

Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a viral infection. It may also be caused by bacteria or things like dust, allergens, strong fumes, or tobacco smoke.

In children, the most common cause of acute bronchitis is a virus. The illness may develop after a cold or other viral infection in the nose, mouth, or throat (upper respiratory tract). Such illnesses can spread easily from direct contact with a person who is sick.

Which children are at risk for acute bronchitis?

Children who have a higher chance of developing acute bronchitis are those who have:

  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Enlarged tonsils and adenoids
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke

What are the symptoms of acute bronchitis in a child?

These are the most common symptoms:

  • Dry or mucus-filled cough
  • Vomiting or gagging
  • Runny nose, often before a cough starts
  • Chest congestion or pain
  • An overall body discomfort or not feeling well
  • Chills
  • Slight fever
  • Back and muscle pain
  • Wheezing
  • Sore throat

These symptoms usually last 7 to 14 days. But the cough may continue for 3 to 4 weeks. These symptoms may look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed in a child?

Your child’s healthcare provider can usually diagnose acute bronchitis with a health history and physical exam. In some cases, your child may need tests to rule out other health problems, such as pneumonia or asthma. These tests may include:

  • Chest X-rays. This test makes images of internal tissues, bones, and organs.
  • Pulse oximetry. An oximeter is a small device that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. For this test, the healthcare provider puts a small sensor (like a clip) on your child's finger or toe. When the device is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The sensor is painless and the red light does not get hot.
  • Sputum and nasal discharge samples. These tests can find the germ causing an infection.

How is acute bronchitis treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

In nearly all cases, antibiotics should not be used to treat acute bronchitis. That’s because most of the infections are caused by viruses. Even children who have been coughing for longer than 8 to 10 days often don't need antibiotics.

The goal of treatment is to help ease symptoms. It may involve:

  • Plenty of rest
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and discomfort
  • Cough medicine for children older than 4 years
  • More fluids
  • Cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room

Talk with your child’s healthcare provider before giving over-the-counter cough and cold medicine to your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend giving these medicines to children younger than 4 years because they may cause harmful side effects. For children between the ages of 4 and 6 years, only use over-the-counter products when recommended by your child's healthcare provider.  In most cases, also don’t give antihistamines. They can dry up the secretions. That can make the cough worse.

What are possible complications of acute bronchitis in a child?

Most children who have acute bronchitis will get better without any problems. But the illness can lead to pneumonia.

How can I help prevent acute bronchitis in my child?

You can help prevent acute bronchitis by stopping the spread of viruses that may lead to it. Take these steps:

  • Teach your child to cover his or her nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
  • Make sure your child washes his or her hands often.
  • Check that your child is up-to-date on all vaccines, including the yearly flu shot.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if your child’s symptoms get worse, or if he or she has:

  • Trouble breathing
  • A high fever

Key points about acute bronchitis in children

  • Bronchitis is an inflammation of the large breathing tubes (bronchi) in the lungs. Acute bronchitis means that the symptoms often develop quickly and don’t last long.
  • In children, the most common cause of acute bronchitis is a virus.
  • A cough, fever, runny nose, and body aches are common symptoms.
  • Treatment is aimed at easing symptoms. It may include plenty of rest and fluids. Medicines for fever or cough may also help.
  • Antibiotics are not needed, unless the cause is a bacterial infection.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Blaivas, Allen J, DO
  • Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
  • Holloway, Beth Greenblatt, RN, MEd