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Bronchiolitis in adults

Talmadge E King, Jr, MD
Section Editor
Kevin R Flaherty, MD, MS
Deputy Editor
Helen Hollingsworth, MD


Bronchiolitis is a general term used to describe a nonspecific inflammatory injury that primarily affects the small airways (eg, 2 mm or less in diameter without cartilage), often sparing a considerable portion of the interstitium [1-4].

A number of types of bronchiolitis have been described, such as acute infectious bronchiolitis, obliterative bronchiolitis, proliferative bronchiolitis, respiratory bronchiolitis, and panbronchiolitis. The terms are often confusing because they have been variably used to describe clinical syndromes and histopathologic abnormalities that may result from a variety of processes causing injury to the small airways [5]. The most important clinical syndromes associated with bronchiolitis are listed in the table (table 1) [3,6].

An overview of bronchiolitis in adults is provided here. The acute infectious bronchiolitis that occurs predominantly in young children and the idiopathic form of organizing pneumonia, also known as bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP) are described separately. (See "Bronchiolitis in infants and children: Clinical features and diagnosis" and "Bronchiolitis in infants and children: Treatment; outcome; and prevention" and "Cryptogenic organizing pneumonia".)


Bronchiolitis is a broad histopathologic term that refers to inflammation, narrowing, or obliteration of bronchioles (table 1). The nomenclature of bronchiolitis has been confusing because clinicians and pathologists have sometimes used one term to describe different disease processes [3,4,7-9]. The following are definitions of the various descriptors used in reference to bronchiolar disorders:

Acute bronchiolitis – Acute bronchiolitis is histologically characterized by intense inflammation of small bronchioles with associated epithelial necrosis and sloughing. Acute bronchiolitis is rare in adults, but has been most commonly associated with infections and inhalational injury.


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Literature review current through: Sep 2015. | This topic last updated: Jul 23, 2015.
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