What is bacterial tracheitis?

Your trachea is also known as your windpipe. It’s an important part of your body’s airway system. When you inhale air through your nose or mouth, it travels through your larynx, or voice box, and down your trachea. Your trachea branches into two tubes, called your bronchi, which deliver air to your lungs. In addition, your trachea allows carbon dioxide-rich air to leave your body when you exhale.

Tracheitis is an infection of your trachea. When caused by bacteria, it’s known as bacterial tracheitis. This condition is rare and typically affects young children. If it isn’t treated quickly enough, it can lead to life-threatening complications.

If your child develops bacterial tracheitis, it will likely happen after they’ve contracted an upper respiratory infection (URI), such as the common cold. Their initial symptoms may include cough, runny nose, and low-grade fever. After two to five days, they may develop more symptoms of infection and airway obstruction. These can include:

  • high fever
  • deep severe cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing
  • nasal flaring
  • cyanosis, a blue tinge to their skin

Your child may also develop stridor. This is a high-pitched sound when they breathe. It’s often a sign of a serious infection and partial airway obstruction. This can be life threatening.

If you or your child develops any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Bacterial tracheitis is usually caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Other bacteria can also cause it, including:

  • Streptococcus pneumonia
  • Hemophilic influenza
  • Moraxella catarrhalis

Most cases of bacterial tracheitis develop after a common cold or flu. Following an URI, bacteria can more easily invade your child’s trachea. This can cause infection, inflammation, and rapid swelling. Because of the small size and position of your child’s trachea, even mild swelling can quickly block their airway.

Although bacterial tracheitis can also affect adults, it tends to develop more slowly in them. If you developed it, the infection may resolve on its own before your airway becomes obstructed.

Your child’s doctor will use a physical exam to diagnose bacterial tracheitis. They will likely listen to your child’s breathing for signs of respiratory distress. To help confirm their diagnosis and rule out other possible causes of their symptoms, your child’s doctor may order additional tests. These may include:

  • A nasopharyngeal culture, which is a sample of secretions from the uppermost part of your child’s throat to test if bacteria are present.
  • A tracheal culture, which is a sample of secretions from your child’s trachea.
  • Blood tests to measure your child’s level of blood oxygen.
  • An X-ray of your child’s airways to see if any inflammation, swelling, or infection exists.
  • Endoscopy, which is a nonsurgical procedure that allows your child’s doctor to view the throat using a thin tube with a camera.

Your child’s doctor will give them antibiotics to kill the bacteria causing their infection. They will likely administer these drugs intravenously.

Your child’s doctor will also focus on clearing your child’s airway. They may need to insert an endotracheal tube into your child’s trachea to help them breath. This procedure is known as intubation. Once the tube is positioned, your child’s doctor will connect it a ventilator. This can help improve your child’s lung function while they recover from their infection.

Your child’s outlook will depend on the severity of their condition and how quickly they get treatment. The airways of small children can swell quickly, making it difficult for them to breathe. If your child’s trachea becomes completely blocked, it can lead to respiratory arrest and death.

If your child’s infection is caused by S. aureus bacteria, they can also potentially develop toxic shock syndrome. This condition can cause fever, shock, organ failure, and even death.

Getting prompt treatment is essential to your child’s ability to make a full recovery.

Children typically do well once they are past the acute phase of the illness. Most children recover without long-last consequences.