How to know when it’s more than a cold

Many children will get coughs and sniffles over the winter season, but sometimes it may be more than a cold. Bronchiolitis is a common lower respiratory tract infection that generally affects babies and young children and is more common in the winter months. Dr Su Laurent, a medic specialising in paediatric health explains: “This season, we have already seen a high number of cases of bronchiolitis, so it is important that parents and caregivers are extra vigilant.”

Bronchiolitis is caused by an inflammation of the bronchioles, which are small airways in the lungs. When these airways become inflamed they restrict the amount of air that can enter the lungs, making it more difficult for little ones to breathe. These breathing difficulties can be distressing for the child and parents alike.

It is estimated that one in three babies in the UK develops bronchiolitis in the first year of their life. Babies are at greater risk of developing severe bronchiolitis if they were born prematurely (born at less than 37 weeks), are under 12 weeks old or were born with a heart or lung condition.

Dr Su Laurent, provides her guidance on spotting the symptoms of bronchiolitis and looking after little ones when they’re unwell: “Many of the early symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of a common cold, such as a blocked or runny nose, a cough and a slightly high temperature. Symptoms will usually worsen over the course of a few days and include a rasping and persistent dry cough, noisy breathing (wheeze) and brief pauses in breathing. Other symptoms include little ones feeding less, having fewer wet nappies, vomiting after feeding and being irritable or floppy. It usually affects babies under the age of one.

“When a child is unwell, it’s understandable that parents will be worried. Although symptoms can be distressing to witness, they are usually mild and bronchiolitis can generally be managed at home. It is important to remember that bronchiolitis is caused by a viral infection so in the majority of cases antibiotics are not needed. 

“Children with a more severe case of bronchiolitis may find themselves struggling to breathe or may have a high temperature of 38°c (100.4F) or above. If you recognise any of these symptoms in your little one, it is important that you seek advice from your GP. While it’s unusual for these children to need hospital treatment, the symptoms can get worse very quickly and, in some cases, you may need to take your child to hospital. Call 999 immediately if your child has severe breathing difficulties, a rapid breathing rate of more than 60 breaths per minute, if their breathing stops for more than 10 seconds, if you’re unable to wake your baby or they seem floppy or lethargic or if their skin, lips or tongue turns pale or blue. As a care-giver, the most important thing you can do is trust your instinct – you know your little one best.”

“For babies who are admitted to hospital, treatment is supportive and may include oxygen, nasogastric feeds and occasionally more active support with breathing. The whole illness may last up to three weeks but babies rarely need to stay more than a week in hospital.

“The virus that causes bronchiolitis is very common and easily spread, so it’s impossible to completely prevent it. However, good hygiene such as hand washing, covering a child’s nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze and using disposable tissues, may help prevent the virus being passed on.

If a child falls in to one of the high-risk categories and is more at risk of developing severe bronchiolitis there may be additional preventative measures available. Please speak to your healthcare professional about preventing and managing bronchiolitis.” For more information visit

More Than a Cold was developed and funded by biopharmaceutical company, AbbVie, and is supported by seven charities; Bliss, the British Lung Foundation, NCT, Tamba, Tiny Tickers, Tiny Lives and WellChild.

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