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Acute Bronchitis in Children

Anatomy of the respiratory system, child
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What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the large breathing tubes (airways) that are called bronchi, which causes increased production of mucus and other changes. Although there are several different types of bronchitis, the most common are acute and chronic (primarily affects adults).

What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is the inflammation of mucous membranes of the bronchial tubes.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection. It may also be caused by physical or chemical agents -- dusts, allergens, strong fumes, and those from chemical cleaning compounds, or tobacco smoke. Acute asthmatic bronchitis may happen as the result of an asthma attack, or it may be the cause of an asthma attack.

In children, the most common cause of bronchitis is a virus, although it can be caused by bacteria. Acute bronchitis is usually a mild condition. When it is caused by a virus, which is most of the time, antibiotics will not help.

Acute bronchitis may follow the common cold or other viral infections in the upper respiratory tract. It may also occur in children with chronic sinusitis, allergies, or those with enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Pneumonia is a complication that can follow bronchitis.

What are the symptoms of acute bronchitis?

The following are the most common symptoms for acute bronchitis:

  • Runny nose, usually before a cough starts

  • Malaise (an overall body discomfort or not feeling well)

  • Chills

  • Slight fever

  • Back and muscle pain

  • Wheezing

  • Sore throat

In the earlier stages of the condition, children may have a dry, nonproductive cough which progresses later to an abundant mucus-filled cough. Younger children may have some vomiting or gagging with the cough. The symptoms of bronchitis usually last 7 to 14 days, but may also persist for 3 to 4 weeks.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis may look like other conditions or medical problems. Consult your child's health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?

Bronchitis is usually diagnosed solely on the history and physical exam of the child. In some cases, other tests may be done to rule out other diseases, such as pneumonia or asthma:

  • Chest X-rays. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Pulse oximetry. An oximeter is a small machine that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. To obtain this measurement, a small sensor (like a bandage) is taped onto a finger or toe. When the machine 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 cultures. A test used to find and identify the microorganism causing an infection.

Treatment for acute bronchitis

In many cases, antibiotic treatment is not necessary to treat acute bronchitis, since most of the infections are caused by viruses. Even children who have been coughing for longer than 8 to 10 days usually do not need antibiotics. Treatment should include good hand hygiene and avoidance of secondhand tobacco smoke. Most of the treatment is supportive of the symptoms your child may have, and may include:

  • Analgesics, such as acetaminophen (for fever and discomfort)

  • Cough medicine

  • Increased fluid intake

  • Cool mist humidifier in the room may be helpful

Avoid antihistamines, in most cases, because they dry up the secretions and can make the cough worse.

Always consult your child's health care provider for advice before giving over-the-counter cold medication to children younger than 6 years of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend giving over-the-counter cough and cold medications to children under 2 years of age because these medicines may cause harmful side effects that can be life-threatening.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Last Review Date: 9/29/2014
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