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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. Acute bronchitis means that the symptoms usually develop quickly and don't last long.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection. It may also be caused by physical or chemical agents. These include dusts, allergens, strong fumes, and those from chemical cleaning compounds, or tobacco smoke. Asthma may lead to acute bronchitis or acute bronchitis may cause asthma flare-ups.

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. Antibiotics should not be used to treat acute viral bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis may follow the common cold or other viral infections in the upper respiratory tract. It occurs more often 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:

  • Dry or productive or mucus-filled cough

  • Vomiting or gagging

  • Runny nose, usually before a cough starts

  • An overall body discomfort or not feeling well (malaise)

  • Chills

  • Slight fever

  • Back and muscle pain

  • Wheezing

  • Sore throat

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 health problems. See your child's healthcare 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 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 usually do not need antibiotics. Treatment should include good hand washing and avoidance of secondhand tobacco smoke. Most of the treatment is supportive 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 ask your child's healthcare provider for advice before giving over-the-counter cold medicine to children younger than 6 years old. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend giving over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children under 2 years of age because these medicines may cause harmful side effects that can be life-threatening.

Online Medical Reviewer: Blaivas, Allen J., DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth Greenblatt, RN, M.Ed.
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.