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Questions and Answers about Bronchiolitis

  • Q: How common is bronchiolitis?
  • A: Although bronchiolitis is common among young children, probably no one knows exactly how many adults have bronchiolitis. As it is most often caused by viral infections, it may get better by itself before it is ever diagnosed. Some of the uncertainty is because bronchiolitis is probably not a single disease itself. It may be easier to think of bronchiolitis as a type of lung injury that happens by a number of causes. Bronchiolitis, however, appears to be less common than asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis.
  • Q: Will symptoms of bronchiolitis ever go away?
  • A: This depends on what caused the bronchiolitis in the first place. If bronchiolitis began after an infection or inhaling something irritating, most people recover fully. Symptoms usually improve by staying away from that substance and/or taking medications, such as inhalers or steroids. With more severe forms of inhaled injury, there may be permanent abnormalities seen on breathing tests and X-rays, even when symptoms have entirely gone away. When bronchiolitis begins because of a noninfectious illness, such as arthritis, symptoms can be much harder to control, and symptoms may never go away entirely. For people with bronchiolitis obliterans, a severe form of bronchiolitis that often comes after organ or stem cell transplantation, bronchiolitis may require many medications and eventually lung transplant.
  • Q: What types of substances can cause bronchiolitis through sudden exposure?
  • A: Generally, these are industrial chemicals that dissolve easily in water. Among them are acids, bleaches, and ammonia. Many of these exist in strong cleaning fluids, kept in closets or under the sink. Some forms of these chemicals are found in machines we use every day, such as battery acids in cars.
  • Q: What are some side effects of medications used to treat bronchiolitis?
  • A: Albuterol, an inhaled bronchodilator commonly used for asthma, can cause the heart rate to speed up. Frequent users may experience a mild tremor in the hand. Corticosteroids work by suppressing the immune system. Therefore, people who take them may be more likely to get infections. Other side effects from steroids include increased appetite, weight gain, and higher sugar levels. The macrolide antibiotics most often used is azithromycin, commonly called "Z-pack". Macrolides are usually well tolerated but can cause stomach upset. They can also cause subtle changes to the EKG or to hearing. Doctors that prescribe macrolides for long periods may check the EKG and recommend hearing tests about once a year.

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

    Page Last Updated: March 16, 2018

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