17.1 Anatomy and Normal Microbiota of the Respiratory Tract

  • The respiratory tract is divided into upper and lower regions at the epiglottis.
  • Air enters the upper respiratory tract through the nasal cavity and mouth, which both lead to the pharynx. The lower respiratory tract extends from the larynx into the trachea before branching into the bronchi, which divide further to form the bronchioles, which terminate in alveoli, where gas exchange occurs.
  • The upper respiratory tract is colonized by an extensive and diverse normal microbiota, many of which are potential pathogens. Few microbial inhabitants have been found in the lower respiratory tract, and these may be transients.
  • Members of the normal microbiota may cause opportunistic infections, using a variety of strategies to overcome the innate nonspecific defenses (including the mucociliary escalator) and adaptive specific defenses of the respiratory system.
  • Effective vaccines are available for many common respiratory pathogens, both bacterial and viral.
  • Most respiratory infections result in inflammation of the infected tissues; these conditions are given names ending in -itis, such as rhinitis, sinusitis, otitis, pharyngitis, and bronchitis.

17.2   Bacterial Infections of the Respiratory Tract

  • A wide variety of bacteria can cause respiratory diseases; most are treatable with antibiotics or preventable with vaccines.
  • Streptococcus pyogenes causes strep throat, an infection of the pharynx that also causes high fever and can lead to scarlet fever, acute rheumatic fever, and acute glomerulonephritis.
  • Acute otitis media is an infection of the middle ear that may be caused by several bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis. The infection can block the eustachian tubes, leading to otitis media with effusion.
  • Bacterial pneumonia results from infections that cause inflammation and fluid accumulation in the alveoli. It is most commonly caused by S. pneumoniae or H. influenzae. The former is commonly multidrug resistant.
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia results from infection by Mycoplasma pneumoniae; it can spread quickly, but the disease is mild and self-limiting.
  • Tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Infection leads to the production of protective tubercles in the alveoli and calcified Ghon complexes that can harbor the bacteria for a long time. Antibiotic- resistant forms are common and treatment is typically long term.
  • Pertussis is caused by Bordetella pertussis. Mucus accumulation in the lungs leads to prolonged severe coughing episodes (whooping cough) that facilitate transmission. Despite an available vaccine, outbreaks are still common.

17.3   Viral Infections of the Respiratory Tract

  • Viruses cause respiratory tract infections more frequently than bacteria, and most viral infections lead to mild symptoms.
  • The common cold can be caused by more than 200 viruses, typically rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, and adenoviruses, transmitted by direct contact, aerosols, or environmental surfaces.
  • Due to its ability to rapidly mutate through antigenic drift and antigenic shift, influenza remains an important threat to human health. Two new influenza vaccines are developed annually.
  • Measles and chickenpox are highly contagious, systemic infections that gain entry through the respiratory system and cause rashes and fevers. Vaccines are available for all three. Measles is the most severe of the three and is responsible for significant mortality around the world. Chickenpox typically causes mild infections in children but the virus can reactivate to cause painful cases of shingles later in life.


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Allied Health Microbiology Copyright © 2019 by Open Stax and Linda Bruslind is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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