An Overview of Bronchitis in Kids

A wet cough that lingers is often the first sign

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Bronchitis in kids occurs when a chest cold leads to inflammation of the large airways to the lungs called the bronchi. If your child has been experiencing a wet cough for more than a week, they could have bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis usually comes on quickly due to a viral or bacterial infection. Apart from the cough, symptoms of bronchitis in children may include a sore throat, body aches, and fatigue (feeling tired). These symptoms can last for up to three or four weeks. 

This article explains the signs of bronchitis in kids, how viral and bacterial bronchitis are treated, and when you may need to see a healthcare provider. It also discusses serious complications that can arise in children diagnosed with bronchitis, such as pneumonia.

Mixed race preteen girl sneezes into her arm

SDI Productions / Getty Images

Symptoms and Signs of Bronchitis in a Child

Bronchitis in kids is often diagnosed when a child has a persistent dry or wet cough that lasts for more than a week.

A wet cough means your child is coughing up mucus. The cough is their body’s attempt to remove the mucus from their airways. Infants and young children may gag or vomit due to the mucus. 

Other symptoms to watch for include:

  • Tiredness and crankiness
  • Chest soreness
  • Sore throat
  • Headache 
  • Body aches
  • Runny nose
  • Mild fever
  • Chills
  • Wheezing 

Bronchitis symptoms may go on for up to 14 days or, sometimes, longer. A cough may last three to four weeks.

When Bronchitis May Be Serious

If your child has a high fever or is struggling to breathe, their bronchitis may be serious. Contact your healthcare provider or call 911 right away.

Causes of Bronchitis in Kids

The most common causes of bronchitis in kids are viruses and bacteria. It usually starts out as an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold. Children can catch viral or bacterial respiratory infections by having direct contact with another infected person, which commonly occurs in schools and daycares.

Other causes of acute bronchitis include irritants like:

  • Dust
  • Tobacco
  • Strong fumes
  • Allergens

Chronic Bronchitis in Children

It is rare for children to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. This is a persistent disease that comes on slowly over time and is often attributed to secondhand smoke exposure.

Underlying conditions such as cystic fibrosis can lead to thick mucus production and chronic bronchitis in kids as well.

Risk Factors

Some children may be more at risk of getting bronchitis than others. In addition to secondhand smoke exposure, common risk factors include:

Does My Child Have Bronchitis?

You may assume your child has bronchitis based on their symptoms. However, it's best to let a healthcare provider make that call.

That's because bronchitis can sometimes be confused with pneumonia or bronchiolitis. A healthcare provider will conduct a physical exam, which will include listening to your child's lungs.

If that's not enough to confirm bronchitis, additional testing will be ordered.

Ruling Out Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis affects the smaller airways known as the bronchioles, rather than the larger ones. These airways constrict, making breathing more difficult.

Bronchiolitis is usually caused by a virus, such as influenza (flu) virus or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bronchiolitis can cause a cough and slight fever. Young children with bronchiolitis may also develop rapid, shallow breathing and wheezing. 

Bronchiolitis is more common in young children, typically babies between the ages of 3 months and 6 months. In contrast, bronchitis usually affects older children and teens.

This condition is the leading cause of hospitalization among infants and young children.

If your healthcare provider suspects bronchiolitis, they may check your child’s pulse oximetry, which measures the amount of oxygen in the blood.

Ruling Out Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause the alveoli, the air sacs in the lungs, to become inflamed and fill with fluid. It can be viral or bacterial and cause symptoms similar to those of bronchitis.

Untreated bronchitis can also lead to pneumonia.

If your healthcare provider suspects pneumonia, they may order a chest X-ray. Occasionally, they may also collect a mucus sample to be evaluated by a lab. 

Note that even if pneumonia is ruled out when your child is first evaluated, there is always the possibility it can develop as the result of bronchitis.

How Do You Treat Bronchitis in Children?

The treatment for bronchitis depends on your child’s symptoms and the cause of their condition.

While medication can help resolve a bacterial infection, viral infections simply have to run their course. In the meantime, symptomatic treatment can be given for comfort.

Viral Bronchitis

Viral bronchitis usually resolves on its own within a few weeks. Antibiotics should never be used to treat viral infections since they will not help and may contribute to future antibiotic resistance. 

Instead, your child's healthcare provider will recommend that they rest as much as possible. This means staying home from school or daycare until their symptoms improve. 

Once mucus starts to come loose in their bronchi, it will be easier to cough it up and remove it. To help this along and ease discomfort, try:

  • Administering a saline nasal spray or drops
  • Using a cool-mist humidifier
  • Having your child breathe in steam (e.g., have them sit in the bathroom with the shower running)
  • Providing them plenty of liquids, like water or broth

Most children start feeling better after 10 days, with full recovery sometimes taking two to three weeks. 

Bacterial Bronchitis

Bacterial bronchitis usually requires antibiotic therapy. If your child has had a wet cough for more than 10 days, see your healthcare provider to find out if they have developed a bacterial infection.

Amoxicillin is generally considered the first-line treatment for bronchitis in kids. The medication is usually taken twice daily, and the number of days needed will depend on your child’s symptom severity. 

If your child is prescribed liquid amoxicillin, you can mix it into their food or drink. Amoxicillin capsules should never be opened or crushed. Most kids begin feeling better after three days of antibiotic therapy.

Be sure to help your child finish their full prescription even once they start feeling better. When an antibiotic is stopped early, the infection can linger and the bacteria may become resistant to antibiotic treatment. 

Try giving the medication with food to prevent nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea—all common side effects of antibiotics. Giving your child a pediatric probiotic supplement may help as well. 

Pneumonia Caused by Bronchitis

If bronchitis results in pneumonia, it may be treated with prescriptions or over-the-counter medication. Your child will also require lots of rest.

In rare cases, some children who develop pneumonia may require hospitalization for oxygen therapy. 

Preventing Bronchitis

There are steps you can take to prevent bronchitis in kids, some of which you will need to rely on your child to follow through on.

Take the time to explain, in simple terms, the reason they need to follow each of these measures and repeat this message as often as is needed for these suggestions to become habits:

  • Make sure your child knows how best to cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • If they wear a face mask to school, make sure their masks are properly cleaned daily.
  • Encourage your child to wash their hands frequently. Proper handwashing technique at the right times, such as right before meals or after blowing their nose, can reduce the chances of spreading illness.
  • Stay in contact with your healthcare provider about your child's vaccination schedule. You can help a child stay healthy by keeping up-to-date on their shots.

Summary

Most cases of bronchitis in kids resolve on their own without the need for antibiotics or other prescription drugs, though some may require treatment. It's best to let a healthcare provider evaluate your child and make that decision.

Once your child is diagnosed with bronchitis, encourage them to rest as much as possible. Set up a cool mist humidifier in your home, and offer them water and fluids throughout the day.

It may take weeks for your child to fully recover, but most kids start feeling more like themselves after about 10 days. See your pediatrician right away if your child develops a high fever, bloody mucus, or has difficulty breathing.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest cold (acute bronchitis).

  2. Stanford Children’s Health. Acute bronchitis in children

  3. Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute bronchitis. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(7):560-565.

  4. Das S, Sockrider M. Protracted Bacterial Bronchitis (PBB) in Children. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2018 Sep 15;198(6):P11-P12. doi: 10.1164/rccm.1986P11.

  5. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. About Cystic Fibrosis.

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Bronchiolitis.

  7. Piedimonte G, Perez MK. Respiratory syncytial virus infection and bronchiolitis [published correction appears in Pediatr Rev. 2015 Feb;36(2):85]. Pediatr Rev. 2014;35(12):519–530. doi:10.1542/pir.35-12-519

  8. Wolf ER, Richards A, Lavallee M, Sabo RT, Schroeder AR, Schefft M, et al. Patient, Provider, and Health Care System Characteristics Associated With Overuse in Bronchiolitis. Pediatrics. 2021 Oct;148(4):e2021051345. doi: 10.1542/peds.2021-051345. 

  9. Ralston SL, Lieberthal AS, Meissner HC, Alverson BK, Baley JE, Gadomski AM, Johnson DW, Light MJ, Maraqa NF, Mendonca EA, Phelan KJ, Zorc JJ, Stanko-Lopp D, Brown MA, Nathanson I, Rosenblum E, Sayles S 3rd, Hernandez-Cancio S; American Academy of Pediatrics. Clinical practice guideline: the diagnosis, management, and prevention of bronchiolitis. Pediatrics. 2014;134(5):e1474-502. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-2742

  10. Morgan JR, Carey KM, Barlam TF, Christiansen CL, Drainoni ML. Inappropriate antibiotic prescribing for acute bronchitis in children and impact on subsequent episodes of care and treatment. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2019;38(3):271-274. doi:10.1097/INF.0000000000002117

  11. Wopker PM, Schwermer M, Sommer S, Längler A, Fetz K, Ostermann T, Zuzak TJ. Complementary and alternative medicine in the treatment of acute bronchitis in children: a systematic review. Complement Ther Med. 2020 Mar;49:102217. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2019.102217

  12. Kua KP, Lee SW. Complementary and alternative medicine for the treatment of bronchiolitis in infants: a systematic review. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0172289. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0172289

  13. Gallucci M, Pedretti M, Giannetti A, di Palmo E, Bertelli L, Pession A, Ricci G. When the cough does not improve: a review on protracted bacterial bronchitis in children. Front Pediatr. 2020 Aug 7;8:433. doi:10.3389/fped.2020.00433

  14. MedlinePlus. Amoxicillin.

Additional Reading

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.