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Advice on respiratory illnesses in children this winter


Health experts are urging parents and carers to be aware of the signs of respiratory illnesses in children, with cases higher than usual for this time of year and further increases expected as temperatures drop.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common virus that causes coughs and colds in winter, and is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (a common chest infection) in children under two.

Dr Shelley Segal, Clinical Director for Children's Services at OUH, said: "We are currently seeing a high number of children with RSV in our hospitals, especially in our Children’s Emergency Department.

"Respiratory illnesses in children are very common, especially in winter, but we have seen fewer of them over the past few years because of COVID-19 restrictions. Now that people are interacting a lot more and schools are back to normal, the spread of illnesses such as RSV and flu is back to pre-pandemic levels and in some cases higher due to people being comparatively sheltered over the past couple of years.

"We understand that respiratory illnesses in children can be very concerning for families, especially if this is the first time they have experienced it. For the majority of children, however, these illnesses will not be serious and care can be provided at home with simple measures such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, and fluids to help relieve symptoms."

Common symptoms of bronchiolitis are runny nose, a wet cough, and a mild increase in temperature. It may cause a reduction in appetite and more noticeable effort in breathing.

Most cases of bronchiolitis resolve without requiring medical input and are not serious, but parents should contact their GP or contact NHS 111 if:

  • Their child is feeding or eating less than half of normal
  • Their child has had a dry nappy for 12 hours or more, or shows other signs of dehydration
  • Their baby is under 1 months and has a temperature of 38C, or is younger than 3 months and has a temperature of 38.5C or higher
  • Their child’s temperature does not settle despite regular paracetamol and ibuprofen
  • Their child is unable to be consoled or very drowsy
  • Their child’s breathing is much faster than normal
  • Children under 8 weeks old, those born prematurely, and those with underlying health conditions are at a higher risk of severe bronchiolitis, and parents should consider accessing health advice earlier.

Parents and carers are advised to dial 999 for an ambulance or attend an Emergency Department if:

  • There are pauses or grunting when their child breathes
  • Their child's skin, tongue, or lips are blue
  • Their child is floppy and will not wake up or stay awake.

There are simple steps you can take to reduce the spread of all viruses:

  • Use tissues to catch coughs or sneezes, bin the used tissues as soon as possible, and wash your hands with soap and warm water to kill the germs
  • Children with flu or bronchiolitis symptoms should stay home and reduce contacts where possible – in particular you should avoid close contact with newborn babies, infants born prematurely (before 37 weeks), children under 2 born with heart or lung conditions, and those with weakened immune systems.

Finally, Dr Segal said: "Cases of respiratory viruses in our hospitals and in the community remain high. We would ask all patients and visitor to adhere to our safety measures – including mask wearing, good hand hygiene, and not visiting patients if you’re unwell – to keep our patients, staff, and of course themselves safe."

Find out more about the symptoms of bronchiolitis and what to do on the NHS website, and children's health in general on the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health website.