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Bacterial Tracheitis

By Rajeev Bhatia, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics; Pediatric Pulmonologist, Northeast Ohio Medical University; Akron Children's Hospital

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Bacterial tracheitis is bacterial infection of the trachea.

Bacterial tracheitis is uncommon and can affect children of any age. Staphylococcus aureus and group A β-hemolytic streptococci are involved most frequently.

Most children have symptoms of viral respiratory infection for 1 to 3 days before the onset of severe symptoms of stridor and dyspnea. In a few children, onset is acute and is characterized by respiratory stridor, high fever, and often copious purulent secretions. Rarely, bacterial tracheitis develops as a complication of viral croup or endotracheal intubation. As in patients with epiglottitis, the child may have marked toxicity and respiratory distress that may progress rapidly and may require intubation.

Complications of bacterial tracheitis include hypotension, cardiorespiratory arrest, bronchopneumonia, and sepsis. Subglottic stenosis secondary to prolonged intubation is uncommon. Most children treated appropriately recover without sequelae.


  • Clinical evaluation

  • Direct laryngoscopy

  • Characteristic x-ray findings

Diagnosis of bacterial tracheitis is suspected clinically and can be confirmed by direct laryngoscopy, which reveals purulent secretions and inflammation in the subglottic area with a shaggy, purulent membrane, or by lateral neck x-ray, which reveals subglottic narrowing that may be irregular as opposed to the symmetric tapering typical of croup. Direct laryngoscopy should be done in controlled circumstances where an artificial airway can be rapidly established if necessary.


  • Adequate airway ensured

  • Antibiotics effective against S. aureus and streptococcal species

Treatment of bacterial tracheitis in severe cases is the same as that for epiglottitis; whenever possible, endotracheal intubation should be done in controlled circumstances by a clinician skilled in managing a pediatric airway.

Initial antibiotics should cover S. aureus and streptococcal species; cefuroxime or an equivalent IV preparation may be appropriate empirically unless methicillin-resistant staphylococcus is prevalent in the community, in which case vancomycin should be used. Therapy for critically ill children should be guided by a consultant knowledgeable in local susceptibility patterns. Once definitive microbial diagnosis is made, coverage is narrowed and continued for 10 days.