A boy laying on a couch sick.
Bronchitis is children is common and most cases are mild.

What to Know About Bronchitis in Children

Primarily an adult disease, 90% of people diagnosed with chronic bronchitis are usually smokers. Although, bronchitis in children is common, most cases of childhood bronchitis are mild and do not lead to severe complications.

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes within the lungs. Bronchial tubes are what carry air in and out of the lungs. Virus, bacteria, or pollutants can irritate the bronchial tubes, causing them to swell and become blocked, leading to bronchitis. Two types of bronchitis are acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis. Most times, when people say the term “bronchitis,” they are referring to the acute form.

What Causes Bronchitis?

A viral or bacterial infection causes most cases of acute bronchitis. External pollutants such as tobacco smoke, dust, chemical fumes and allergens can also trigger bronchitis. For children, bronchitis may occur after an upper respiratory infection, like a cold.

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

  • Allergies.
  • Asthma.
  • Issues with tonsils and adenoids.
  • Exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Chronic sinusitis.

Signs and Symptoms of Bronchitis in Children

Bronchitis typically starts and ends with a cough. Although most bronchitis symptoms only last for 7 to 14 days, the cough can linger for a month. Bronchitis symptoms in children include:

  • Cough, either dry or wet.
  • 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.

Sometimes, the mucus and swollen bronchial tubes can make it difficult to breathe. Because bronchitis symptoms can be confused with those of other illnesses, it is best to consult with a pediatrician for a correct diagnosis.

Causes and Risk Factors

Most often, the cause of bronchitis is a virus. However, allergens, chemical fumes and smoke may also trigger bronchitis.

Children who have the following conditions are more likely to experience cases of bronchitis:

  • Allergies.
  • Asthma.
  • Tonsils that are enlarged.
  • Chronic sinusitis.
  • Living in a household with smokers.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis in Children

For most cases of bronchitis, a visit to the pediatrician for a quick exam can provide an accurate diagnosis. However, there are some instances that may require a test to rule out other issues, like asthma. A pediatrician may order chest x-rays to evaluate internal organs, tissues, or bones. Samples of a child’s mucus may also be collected to pinpoint what kind of germs are causing the infection.

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Treatment of Bronchitis

The best methods to treat bronchitis depends on the age, general health, symptoms presented and the severity of the child's condition. In most children, antibiotics are unnecessary because most bronchitis cases are viral infections. This is even for children who have been coughing for a prolonged period. Because bronchitis often resolves itself in time, treatments for bronchitis focus on easing the child’s symptoms. Treatment may include:

  • The use of a cool-mist humidifier (moisture helps to loosen mucus in the respiratory tract).
  • Fluids to help hydration and moisten the respiratory tract.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain, discomfort, or fever (never give a child aspirin).

If a child is over 4 years old, cough medicine may be administered. Allow the child to rest. Remember to keep any follow-up appointments with your pediatrician, even if your child appears improved.

Complications of Bronchitis

Although most cases of bronchitis will resolve without complications, they can occur. A complication of bronchitis is pneumonia. Contact the child’s pediatrician or healthcare professional if the following occurs:

  • A child has difficulty breathing.
  • A child has increasing wheezing sounds when they breathe.
  • A child has a productive cough and coughs up yellow or green mucus.
  • A child has a high fever.
  • A child develops a rash, pain in the ears, or a sore throat.
  • A child coughs up blood.
  • A child cannot swallow or keep down medication, food, or liquids.

Can Bronchitis Be Prevented?

Avoid Air Pollutants

One vital preventive measure for bronchitis is to avoid air pollutants. This includes secondhand smoke. Children who live in families with smokers tend to develop bronchitis more frequently than children who live with non-smokers. Tobacco smoke can irritate the lungs and cause inflammation, making children more susceptible to bronchitis when they catch a cold or flu.

Keep Your Home Tidy

Keeping a child’s home free of clutter can also help to mitigate the occurrence of bronchitis. Dust and dirt can accumulate in clutter, as well as bug or rodent droppings and animal dander. Dust, dirt, dander and droppings can flow into the air and aggravate a child’s lungs, leading to bronchitis.

Maintain Proper Hygiene

Although preventing bronchitis from occurring at all is not possible, there are a few lifestyle changes that can help to minimize how often it happens. Because bronchitis typically starts with an initial infection, it is essential to teach children appropriate hand hygiene. Teach children to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water and wash them often. This is an incredibly vital habit to have during cold and flu season and when playing with other children.

Also, teaching children not to place their hands near their mouth can keep germs from transferring from their hands. To keep other children safe, educate them about covering their nose and mouth with the crook of their elbows if they sneeze or cough. Teaching children good hygiene habits is vital to the prevention of bronchitis and many other diseases.