What is bronchitis?
When your child has a cold, sore throat, flu, or sinus infection, the virus that caused the misery can spread to the bronchial tubes that connect her throat to her lungs. Once the germs take hold there, her airways become swollen, inflamed, and partly blocked with mucus, a condition known as bronchitis.
Your child will start coughing deeply and might spit out green, gray, or yellowish phlegm. Her chest may hurt, she may have a slight fever, and she'll probably feel constantly tired.
While bacterial infections and irritants such as cigarette smoke and dust also can trigger bronchitis, viruses are by far the most common culprits when children get the illness.
Although fever associated with bronchitis may last just a few days, the cough may linger for two to three weeks. Often the cough will become wetter and more productive near the end of the illness. Some people suffer symptoms for months at a time. This is called chronic bronchitis. It is most common among smokers and those who live with them, but air pollution, dust and toxic gases can also contribute to it.
How is bronchitis treated?
Most of the time, bronchitis will go away on its own. To ease symptoms get lots of rest, drink lots of water, and use a humidifier. You can also give your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease pain and lower fever. If your child's doctor thinks that asthma or reactive airway disease is involved in the cough, he or she may also prescribe a bronchodilator (a medication to widen the air passages) or a corticosteroid (a medication to ease inflammation).
Remember, childhood bronchitis is almost always caused by a virus. That means antibiotics -- which kill only bacteria -- aren't likely to work against your child's illness. If, however, your child has chronic bronchitis and there's a sudden change in the color or amount of mucus, she probably does have a bacterial infection that could be cleared up with antibiotics.
When should I call a doctor?
Call a doctor immediately if your child is working hard to breathe or is breathing fast (especially if her temperature is normal) or is wheezing as well as coughing. Make an appointment if her cough lasts for more than two weeks.
Call paramedics or head for the emergency room if your child is turning blue in the face, struggling to breathe, or coughing up blood.
What can I do to help?
You can help to relieve your child's congestion and prevent dehydration by making sure she drinks eight to 10 glasses of liquids each day. If your house has dry air, a humidifier may speed her recovery. Cold weather, dust, and smoke can irritate her airways, so let her rest in a clean, warm, smoke-free room. You can give her acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease her fever and pain. (A child under the age of 18 who has a viral infection should never take aspirin because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a potentially life-threatening infection.)
To help prevent bronchitis, treat your child's colds and other illnesses promptly. You may even want her to get a flu shot before the season strikes. The Centers for Disease Control recommends flu shots for children from 6 months to 19 years of age.
Pantell, Robert H. M.D., James F. Fries M.D., and Donald M. Vickery M.D. Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent's Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care, Eighth Edition. 2009. Da Capo Lifelong Books.
Health Magazine editors. The Self-Care Advisor: The Essential Home Health Guide for You and Your Family. 2000. Time Life Medical.
American Academy of Family Physicians, FamilyDoctor.org. Acute Bronchitis. Updated February 2010. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/infections/common/mulitsource/677.html
Mayo Clinic. Reye's syndrome. September 2009. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/reyes-syndrome/DS00142
Centers for Disease Control. Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine. Updated October 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/FLU/protect/keyfacts.htm
Mayo Clinic. Cold remedies: what works, what doesn't, what can't hurt. February 2010. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cold-remedies/ID00036