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What Is a Lower Respiratory Tract Infection?

By Madeleine A.
Updated May 17, 2024
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A lower respiratory tract infection affects the area of the respiratory system below the vocal chords. An example of a lower respiratory tract infection is pneumonia, which can be viral or bacterial in nature. Another lower respiratory tract infection is bronchitis, which can be characterized as acute or chronic. In addition, bronchitis can be related to a virus or a bacterial organism. Also, asthma or smoking can contribute to the development of acute or chronic bronchitis.

Treating respiratory infections depends upon the offending organism, symptoms, and age of the patient. If the lower respiratory tract infection is bacterial, antibiotics are generally effective in eradicating the infection and relieving symptoms. If the lower respiratory tract infection is caused by a virus, antibiotics will be useless, as they are only effective in treating bacterial organisms. Sometimes, however, bacterial infections resolve on their own.

Although the origination of a bacterial and viral lower respiratory tract infection differ, signs and symptoms of the infections can be identical. Symptoms of either type of lower respiratory tract infection may include dry or productive coughing, fever, and occasionally, sore throat. In addition, patients may develop a runny or stuffy nose, headache, and body aches. Drinking plenty of fluids, taking pain relievers and fever reducers, and resting can also help relieve the symptoms and speed recovery.

Sometimes, complications can arise from a lower respiratory tract infection. This is especially worrisome in children and the elderly. Because small children are unable to talk, a respiratory infection in children may make it difficult to recognize symptoms. For example, a small child may not be able to tell his parents that his throat hurts, or that it hurts when he breathes. This is why it is so important, at the first sign of infection, for parents to call the pediatrician so an effective treatment plan can be started.

In severe cases, people with lower respiratory tract infections may need to be hospitalized. When oral antibiotics and other treatments fail to bring improvement, hospitalization, including a course of intravenous antibiotics may be required. In addition, intravenous fluids may be necessary for those who are so ill that they become dehydrated. Vomiting and diarrhea can sometimes accompany a lower respiratory infections, and if prolonged, can result in severe, and sometimes life-threatening dehydration.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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