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Diagnosing and Treating Bronchiolitis

What to Expect

If your doctor thinks you may have bronchiolitis, he or she is likely to ask detailed questions about infections or exposures you may have had. You may expect detailed questions about where you live, where you may have traveled and whether you have been exposed to certain chemicals or medications.

To diagnose bronchiolitis, it is usually important to rule out other medical problems, and this usually requires further testing. You can expect to undergo pulmonary function tests, a way to measure how well your lungs are working. These tests require you to do a number of breathing maneuvers, most often blowing into a tube or holding your breath for a short period of time. Another test often used in this situation is a CT scans. CT scans are a form of X-ray that produces very accurate pictures of your lungs, which can help doctors decide if bronchiolitis is present, and if so, what type of bronchiolitis it may be.

If your medical history, along with the results of any pulmonary function tests and CT scans do not offer a clear answer about whether you have bronchiolitis, your doctor may want to get a biopsy of your lungs to figure it out.

How Bronchiolitis Is Diagnosed

Unless there is a clear history of infection, exposures or other known causes of bronchiolitis, along with typical pulmonary function tests and/or CT scan, bronchiolitis may be a difficult diagnosis to make.  It is usually only considered when people do not respond well to treatment for more common lung diseases like asthma or emphysema. Many patients ultimately require a procedure to obtain samples for a lung biopsy. Looking at small samples from the damaged lung through the microscope is the most accurate means for diagnosing the presence and type of bronchiolitis. That knowledge will help guide the doctor toward the best treatment.

How Bronchiolitis Is Treated

The most common treatments for bronchiolitis are usually prescription medications to help control specific symptoms. For instance, cough medications are used to suppress the cough and inhalers are used to help with shortness of breath.

Other treatments for bronchiolitis usually depend on what is causing the injury to the airways. When bronchiolitis is caused by medication or inhaling a toxic substance, sometimes limiting exposure is enough. When bronchiolitis is the result of specific disease, such as arthritis, treatment might include medications against those diseases.

When symptoms are severe, steroids may be prescribed. Steroids are strong medications used to fight inflammation. They work by suppressing the immune system. While often effective, steroids may also have side effects, including increased appetite, increased blood sugar levels and weight gain.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Bronchiolitis

Making notes before your visit, as well as taking along a trusted family member or friend, can help you through the first appointment with your doctor.

  • How common is bronchiolitis?
  • Will symptoms of bronchiolitis ever go away?
  • What types of substances can cause bronchiolitis through sudden exposure?
  • What are some side effects of medications used to treat bronchiolitis?

See answers to common questions about bronchiolitis »

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Page Last Updated: March 13, 2018

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