Bronchitis in kids: symptoms, causes and treatment

Bronchitis in kids
Medically reviewed by Dr. Devindra Bhatt

Overview

Bronchitis in kids can be concerning to parents and children alike. It occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed, causing a persistent mucus cough. It’s crucial to note that antibiotics typically don’t aid in viral bronchitis treatment and may even pose harm. However, for bacterial bronchitis, a course of suitable antibiotics is required as it may worsen without treatment. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are more susceptible to recurrent bouts of bronchitis. Seeking medical advice is essential for proper diagnosis, exploring suitable treatment options, ensuring your child’s well-being, and preventing potential complications. Consult a healthcare professional is the first step toward effective relief and a quicker recovery.

What is bronchitis in kids?

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the lungs’ large breathing tubes (bronchi). It can occur in two primary forms: acute and chronic. 

  • Acute bronchitis develops, with symptoms such as cough, fever, runny nose, and body aches, typically caused by viral infections in children. 
  • In contrast, chronic bronchitis implies a longer-term condition, a rarity in children, and presents similar symptoms over an extended duration. 

It’s crucial to understand the nature of bronchitis as it helps in recognizing and managing its various forms effectively.

Worried about your child’s persistent cough? Get treatment without delays.

How do I know if my child has bronchitis?

By recognizing the main signs and symptoms, you can spot whether or not your child has it. Acute bronchitis typically starts with a dry, annoying cough due to bronchial tube inflammation. As it progresses, your child may experience:

  • Coughing with mucus: The cough may evolve, bringing up thick white, yellow, or greenish mucus.
  • Wheezing: A whistling or hissing sound during breathing could indicate bronchial irritation.
  • Shortness of breath: Breathlessness may accompany the coughing spells.
  • Chest discomfort: Soreness or tightness in the chest might be experienced.
  • Headache: Headaches may surface as a symptom of bronchitis.

Additionally, your child may experience general malaise i.e., feeling unwell, along with

  • Fever with chills
  • Sore Throat
  • Stuffy Nose
  • Body Aches
  • Fatigue

In chronic bronchitis, recovery from common respiratory illnesses may take longer, with pronounced symptoms like wheezing, persistent shortness of breath, and daily coughing. If your child displays any of these signs, consulting a doctor ensures timely intervention and appropriate guidance for a smoother recovery.

What causes bronchitis in kids?

Bronchitis in children can occur due to different causes, including viral or bacterial as follows:

Viral bronchitis

About 95 percent of acute bronchitis cases in the general population are caused by upper respiratory viruses, often stemming from the common cold or flu. Viral bronchitis typically lasts between 7 and 10 days, with lingering coughs persisting a bit longer. Notably, viruses do not respond to antibiotics.

Bacterial bronchitis

Less common than its viral counterpart, bacterial bronchitis develops in response to bacterial growth in the bronchi. Though symptoms may mirror viral bronchitis, the mucus color cannot reliably distinguish between the two. Only about 5% of acute bronchitis cases are attributed to bacteria.

Chronic bronchitis

Extending beyond four weeks or recurring after treatment, chronic bronchitis is less frequently diagnosed in kids. Smoking and certain habits are associated with its development. A 2020 study on Swedish teens revealed that only around 5.5% were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, with smoking implicated in about 37% of cases.

Acute bronchitis, often triggered by a virus, may coincide with or follow a cold or respiratory infection. Recognizing these distinct causes is essential for targeted and effective intervention in children’s bronchitis.

Confused whether your kid’s bronchitis is viral or bacterial? Get a consultation with a doctor 24/7

How do you treat bronchitis in children?

Effectively managing bronchitis in children involves a combination of home care and, in certain cases, prescribed medications. For bacterial bronchitis, antibiotic treatment may or may not be necessary. 

When prescribed, it usually involves a 5-day to 2-week course of oral antibiotics such as amoxicillin, azithromycin, and cephalosporins. Your child’s doctor will determine the appropriate treatment plan, considering individual factors, and may also recommend inhalers or nebulizers to aid breathing.

Since antibiotics are ineffective against viral bronchitis, doctors typically focus on supportive care:

  • Hydration and rest: Ensuring your child drinks plenty of liquids and gets ample rest forms the cornerstone of home care, contributing to recovery.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: For older kids and teens, doctors may recommend OTC or prescription cough medicine to alleviate coughing. Bronchodilators or other asthma medications might also be prescribed to relax and open bronchial tubes, facilitating easier breathing. 
  • Avoiding irritants: For chronic bronchitis, especially in the case of exposure to smoke, avoidance is key. Quitting smoking is crucial, as tobacco smoke is a significant contributor to chronic bronchitis, causing more than 80% of cases.
  • Mist humidifier: Using a humidifier can improve breathing and sleep quality. 
  • Cough suppressants: Over-the-counter cough suppressants can provide relief for children older than four years. 
  • Managing other symptoms: OTC drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can address symptoms like fever or headache. In cases of difficulty breathing, a doctor may prescribe an inhaler.
  • If your child has a persistent cough despite having bronchodilators and suffers from wheezy bronchitis, your doctor may also recommend oral corticosteroids for the treatment.

What are the complications of bronchitis?

Generally, acute bronchitis in toddlers or children tends to resolve on its own within a few weeks. However, if symptoms persist beyond this timeframe, collaboration with your child’s doctor becomes crucial for proper treatment or further investigation.

Pneumonia Risk

In some cases, bronchitis may progress to pneumonia, where the infection spreads to the lung tissue. While this complication is relatively uncommon in children, occurring in about 1 in 20 cases, it’s essential to be vigilant, especially if your child has other health issues.

Chronic Bronchitis and Asthma

If your child experiences frequent bronchitis episodes, and if certain risk factors are present, their doctor may explore the possibility of other lung conditions. This investigation may include assessing for chronic bronchitis or potential asthma. Understanding and addressing these underlying conditions is crucial for effective long-term management and preventing recurrent bronchial issues in children. 

How long does bronchitis last in a child?

The timeline of bronchitis in children passes through distinct stages. In the initial phases, children may experience a dry cough, evolving into a cough accompanied by mucus production. Younger children might even exhibit vomiting or gagging in response to the cough. The typical duration of bronchitis symptoms spans 7 to 14 days, with some cases persisting for three to four weeks. Recognizing the progression of symptoms and understanding the expected duration aids parents in monitoring their child’s health and seeking medical guidance if needed. It’s essential to note that individual variations may occur, and any concerns about prolonged symptoms should be discussed with a healthcare professional.

Don’t neglect the lingering cough. Your child may be at risk of bronchitis complications.

Should I take my child to the doctor for bronchitis?

A visit to the pediatrician is recommended under the following circumstances:

  • Persistent wet cough: If your child has a wet cough persisting for more than four weeks, a visit to the pediatrician is advisable.
  • Ongoing fevers and congestion: Continuous fevers, daily congestion, and difficulty breathing warrant a pediatrician’s evaluation.
  • Risk factors or underlying conditions: Children with risk factors such as asthma or other underlying health conditions to have their cough examined.
  • Blood in the mucus: If there is noticeable blood in the mucus, seeking medical attention is crucial.
  • Difficulty breathing: Any signs of difficulty breathing should be addressed promptly.
  • Frequent bouts of bronchitis: If your child experiences recurrent bronchitis episodes, a consultation with the pediatrician is necessary for a thorough examination and appropriate intervention.

Other FAQs about bronchitis in children

How serious is bronchitis in a child?

Acute bronchitis is typically a mild condition in children. It often follows common colds or viral infections in the upper respiratory tract. While it can occur in children with chronic sinusitis, allergies, or enlarged tonsils and adenoids, it is generally considered a manageable and non-severe illness. However, it’s important to note that complications like pneumonia can follow bronchitis, emphasizing the need for proper care and monitoring.

How should a child with bronchitis sleep?

To facilitate easier breathing during sleep for a child with bronchitis, it is advised that they use a cool-mist humidifier in their bedroom. It’s important to avoid using a hot-water vaporizer, as it can pose the risk of burns. This simple adjustment in sleeping conditions can contribute to the child’s comfort and overall well-being during recovery.

How contagious is bronchitis in kids?

If the cause of bronchitis is viral, it is highly contagious, causing upper respiratory tract infection. The ease of transmission is high, with these illnesses spreading easily through direct contact with an infected person.

Your Doctors Online uses high-quality and trustworthy sources to ensure content accuracy and reliability. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and medical associations to provide up-to-date and evidence-based information to the users.

  • Cavanagh, D. and Naqi, S., 2003. Infectious bronchitis. Diseases of poultry11, pp.101-119.
  • Hasegawa, K., Tsugawa, Y., Brown, D.F., Mansbach, J.M. and Camargo Jr, C.A., 2013. Trends in bronchiolitis hospitalizations in the United States, 2000–2009. Pediatrics132(1), pp.28-36.
  • https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bronchiolitis/
  • Klein RB, Huggins BW. Chronic bronchitis in children. Semin Respir Infect. 1994 Mar;9(1):13-22. PMID: 7973162.

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