Acute bronchiolitis is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infection in children under the age of 2.
Children typically present with a coryzal prodrome followed by cough, reduced oral intake and possible dehydration, increased work of breathing and on auscultation, crepitations and wheeze.
Symptoms are usually mild lasting only a few days, but in some cases hospital admission may be required. Infection follows a seasonal pattern peaking during the winter months, and is most commonly caused by Respiratory Synctial Virus (RSV). Management of bronchiolitis consists of supportive measures such as ensuring adequate hydration and oxygenation.
Approximately 75% of cases of bronchiolitis occur in children under the age of 1 year and 95% in those under the age of 2.
Although children can usually be managed at home, approximately 3% of affected children require hospital admission, with 1.3 per 1000 infants aged under 1 year requiring paediatric intensive care input. The condition most commonly occurs during the winter months.
Most cases of bronchioloitis occur due to a viral pathogen.
The main viral pathogen is Respiratory Synctial virus (RSV), which is an enveloped single-stranded RNA virus with two subtypes, A and B (subtype A causing the more severe infection). RSV causes over 75% of cases with parainfluenza virus accounting for 10-30% and adenovirus 5-10%. In one third of hospitalised cases, co-infection with two or more viruses can be found, as well as with bacterial infection.
Bronchiolitis is highly contagious, being spread by droplet infection from nasal and oral secretions.
The incubation period is 2-5 days and viral shedding continues for 6-21 days after symptoms develop.
Bronchioles are small airways in the lower respiratory tract that the infection causes injury to, with the consequent inflammatory process causing increased mucus production, bronchial obstruction and constriction, alveolar cell death, air trapping, atelectasis, ventilation-perfusion mismatch and ultimately laboured breathing.
As bronchiolitis affects young infants, clinical manifestations may initially be subtle and difficult to differentiate between other common illnesses.
Common pathologies that may present in a similar manner include upper respiratory tract infection and viral-induced wheeze. The coryzal illness is the initial prodrome with other symptoms usually peaking around days 3-5 of the illness.
Typical clinical features include:
Bronchiolitis is a clinical diagnosis based on classical signs and symptoms in the usual age group.
The most common differentials for bronchiolitis include viral upper respiratory tract infection, viral-induced wheeze/asthma, viral/bacterial pneumonia, foreign body ingestion.
No auscultated chest signs apart from possible transmitted upper airway noises, rarely show signs of increased work of breathing.
Rare in those under 1 year, usually presents with episodic wheeze only, and more common in those with a personal or family history of atopy
Toxic appearance, hyperpyrexia (> 39 degrees), persistent focal crepitations
Usually sudden-onset of choking and respiratory distress with no prodrome and possibly unilateral wheeze (typiclaly right-sided due to the increased likelihood of objects passing down right-main bronchus
Bronchiolitis is a clinical diagnosis and viral investigations can be performed on those admitted to hospital.
Rapid viral antigen or nucleic acid amplification testing of nasopharyngeal secretions for RSV and other viruses are usually performed in those admitted to hospital.
Blood tests, blood gas analysis and chest x-rays are not routinely required, and often reserved for children who appear clinically unwell or high-risk of severe infection (see later). Typical x-rays changes include bilateral peri-hilar infiltrates with some hyperinflation due to air-trapping .
Risk factors for the development of severe bronchiolitis include the following:
• Age less than 3 months
• Prematurity, particularly under 32 weeks
• Low birth weight
• Male sex
• Low socioeconomic group
• Parental smoking
• Chronic lung disease/airway anomalies
• Congenital heart disease
• Neuromuscular disorders
Despite the availability of national guidelines for the treatment of bronchiolitis, there is still great variation and controversy among medical professionals regarding the optimal treatment of these patients.
The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) have produced guidance promoting supportive care for those presenting with bronchiolitis.
Appropriate cardiorespiratory monitoring is essential including temperature, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, heart rate, and level of consciousness. Local guidelines often include scoring systems such as the Paediatric Observation Priority Score (POPS) or the Paediatric Early Warning System (PEWS) to help decision-making regarding those who may require admission to hospital or are safe to be discharged home. A POPS < 2 is generally considered to be safe for discharge dependent on clinical assessment.
Supportive care for patients with bronchiolitis may include the following as per NICE guidance:
More advanced care in children requiring hospital admission may include:
NICE accepts that additional therapies may be considered in children with a history of wheeze, allergies, family history of atopy or who are in severe respiratory distress.
There addditioanl therapies may include:
In most cases, bronchiolitis is a mild and self-limiting condition.
In infants who are immunosuppressed and those with pre-existing heart or lung disease, RSV bronchiolitis can result in any of the following complications:
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