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Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection

Whether you know it or not, chances are you’ve had a respiratory tract infection (RTI) or upper respiratory tract infection (URI) at some point in your life.

A bacterial respiratory tract infection is an infection of the sinuses, throat, airway, or lungs. Bacterial infections may develop after having a viral illness like a cold or the flu. Symptoms tend to localize to one particular area.

So how do you know if your common cold has morphed into a bacterial respiratory tract infection? Here are some warning signs and treatment options that’ll help you feel better in no time.

Bacterial vs. Viral Infections

The difference between bacterial and viral infections is simple: bacterial infections are caused by bacteria (single-celled microorganisms), while viral infections are caused by viruses (smaller than bacteria and require a living host to multiply).

Many ailments and illnesses have similar symptoms whether they are viral or bacterial—the biggest difference between the two types of infections is that bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, while viral infections cannot.

Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection Symptoms

Respiratory bacterial infections can affect two areas of your body: the upper respiratory system, and the lower respiratory system.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infection Types and Symptoms

Common cold

  • Stuffy, runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever

A few warning signs that your cold has progressed from a viral infection to a bacterial infection are:

    • Symptoms lasting longer than 10–14 days
    • A fever higher than 100.4 degrees
    • A fever that gets worse a couple of days into the illness, rather than getting better
    • White pus-filled spots on the tonsils


Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses. Symptoms include:

  • Postnasal drip
  • Stuffy nose/congestion
  • Tooth pain
  • Coughing
  • Greenish nasal discharge
  • Facial tenderness (specifically under the eyes or at the bridge of the nose)
  • Bad breath
  • Fatigue
  • Fever


Pharyngitis is characterized as inflammation of the pharynx, which is located in the back of the throat. It’s more commonly known as a “sore throat.” Symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever


This is when the epiglottis—the flap at the base of your tongue that prevents food from entering the windpipe—becomes inflamed. Symptoms are typically rapid and include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Pain/difficulty swallowing
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Drooling
  • Swollen lymph nodes


Laryngotracheitis is an infection of the upper airway that blocks breathing and has a distinctive “barking” cough. This infection is more commonly known as “coup.” Symptoms include:

  • “Barking” cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fast or noisy breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Congestion/runny nose
  • Vocal hoarseness

Lower Respiratory Tract Infection Types and Symptoms


Bronchitis is a bronchial tube inflammation. Bronchial tubes carry air to your lungs. Bronchitis symptoms include:

  • Coughing that produces thickened mucous
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Overall feeling of malaise
  • Runny nose or postnasal drip
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Pressure in the chest


Bronchiolitis may sound similar to bronchitis, but they are two distinct lung infections. Bronchitis causes inflammation in the upper bronchial tubes and trachea, while bronchiolitis causes swelling in the smallest lung airways—called bronchioles. In addition, bronchiolitis is more common in younger children, mostly under the age of 2. Symptoms include:

  • Dry, raspy cough
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty feeding (infants) or eating (toddlers)
  • Low-grade fever
  • Runny or stuffy nose


Pneumonia is the most common bacterial lower respiratory infection. It’s an infection that inflames air sacs in one or both lungs—these air sacs may fill with fluid or pus. Pneumonia symptoms include:

  • Cough that produces phlegm or pus
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sharp chest pain
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Clammy skin or sweating
  • Fast breathing
  • Shallow breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid heart rate

Please note that many of these bacterial respiratory infections have similar symptoms. If you suspect you may have an upper or lower bacterial respiratory infection, call your doctor for an examination. Many of these infections can be serious if left untreated. Unlike a viral illness that has to “run its course,” bacterial infections must be treated with antibiotics.

Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection Diagnosis

If a respiratory tract infection is suspected, your doctor may perform the following tests to provide the best diagnosis and treatment plan possible:

  • Throat swab: your physician will take a sterile cotton swab and swipe it across the back of your throat. The swab will collect a sample of secretions that are being produced in the back of your throat. They will then be tested in a lab to determine whether you have a bacterial infection in your throat.
  • Lateral neck x-ray: your doctor may order a lateral neck x-ray to rule out epiglottitis, especially if you’ve been having difficulty breathing.
  • Chest x-ray: if pneumonia is suspected, your doctor may order a chest x-ray.
  • CT scan: CT scans are often used to diagnose sinusitis.

Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection Treatments

When a bacterial respiratory tract infection occurs, your doctor will probably prescribe an antibiotic to clear the infection. To help alleviate symptoms and bring relief, many doctors suggest using:

  • Cough suppressants
  • Expectorants (medication that promotes the secretion of sputum/mucus)
  • Vitamin C and zinc to reduce symptoms
  • Steam inhalation
  • Gargling salt water
  • Pain relievers

Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection Prevention

Both viral and bacterial respiratory tract infections are contagious and spread from person to person through respiratory droplets emitted by coughing or sneezing. Transmission of these infections can also occur by touching the mouth or nose by hand, or by touching another object exposed to the virus or bacteria. The best ways to prevent the spread of a bacterial respiratory tract infection are:

  • Avoiding close contact with sick people
  • Wiping down objects: remotes, phones, doorknobs, surfaces, etc.
  • Cover your mouth and nose (especially when coughing)
  • Stay at home if you are sick

The Lung Docs: Specialized Pulmonary Care

The Lung Docs provides specialized, state-of-the-art pulmonary care to our patients with respiratory infections in Chattanooga and the surrounding Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia areas.

Dr. Mike’s Approach

I’m Dr. Mike Czarnecki, “The Lung Doc,” and I’m trained in all areas of pulmonary health, including the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory infections. I will work with you to formulate a personalized RTI/URI treatment plan so you can live, laugh, love, and breathe better again! To get started, schedule an appointment online or call our office to speak to someone directly. I can’t wait to meet you!