World first research into bronchiolitis in babies and children could change the way it's treated.

Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection in young children that can lead to lifelong illness and currently there is a “poor understanding” of how the virus can be treated.

That’s something researchers at Flinders Medical Centre hope to change as they embark on a world-first study into the respiratory syncytial virus that causes bronchiolitis.

“It amazes me that for such a common condition it’s still a black box, it’s still poorly understood by science,” Professor of Paediatrics at Flinders Medical Centre, Kevin Forsyth, told Nine News.

Currently, the infection, which causes coughing, wheezing and flu-like symptoms – mostly in babies under 18 months – is treated with rest and hydration at home, but can require hospitalisation and high flow oxygen if the child is struggling to breathe.

While babies and young children recover from the infection within a matter of weeks, 60 per cent will later develop asthma – a lifelong condition that can be fatal in the event of an untreated attack.

The South Australian researchers hope that by looking at the way the body responds to the virus – sometimes in a way that damages the lungs – they can prevent the body from making the symptoms and complications worse.

“The body can sometimes switch on its defences so strongly that it damages the lung tissue around the virus,” Professor Forsyth said.

“Once we understand it better we can design treatments to intervene, so it’s not just giving oxygen, it’s actually turning off the inflammation that’s causing so much trouble.”

Researchers said a new treatment could be just two years away.

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