Tracheitis (Inflamed Windpipe) Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

What is tracheitis?

The trachea or windpipe is a small tube, which connects the voice box or larynx to the lungs and provides an air passage. Some time the inner lining of the trachea in the humans can get inflamed and this condition is called tracheitis. Various bacterial infections can lead to tracheitis; however, tracheitis can also be caused by some other infectious and non-infectious factors. In many cases, these factors affect not only the trachea, but neighboring areas as well.

Overall tracheitis on its own is not a common condition. It often arises as neighboring respiratory infections spread to involves the trachea as well. Tracheitis affects small children more frequently because their windpipes are smaller in size and shape. As a result of inflammation, the trachea get swollen easily. Though the condition is also reported in elder kids, they usually improve before the infection worsens and blocks the airway. Tracheitis is a rare condition and affects boys more often than girls.

What are the causes of tracheitis?

There are various causes of tracheitis and infections are by far the most common. The trachea is broad tract that leads from the larynx (voice box) and then divides into the two bronchi, which in turn lead to the lungs. The trachea has C-shaped cartilages which keeps it open. Unlike with other parts of the respiratory tract, especially the bronchi, it cannot widen and narrow to a large degree in response to stimuli. Laryngitis and bronchitis are more common than tracheitis but the infection from the larynx or bronchi can easily spread to the trachea.


Many bacterial species are known to cause tracheitis in humans. Various Staphylococcus species (e.g., S. aureus, S. pneumonia, S. pyogenes) and less frequently, Haemophilus influenza, can cause windpipe inflammation. In some cases, tracheitis can also follow a viral infection such as the common cold or seasonal flu. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) also causes respiratory tract infection but only affects children.


Several irritants present in the air can also damage tracheal lining and make it prone to infections. Examples of such irritants include nitric oxide, dense smoke, and sulfur dioxide. Naturally smokers are at a greater risk of a range of tracheal conditions since tobacco smoke is an irritant, laden with a host of toxic chemicals.


Allergies involving the trachea is not common but can occur with allergic reactions affecting the respiratory tract. This is triggered by a range of substances (allergens) and often when these allergens are airborne. These substances are usually harmless but immune sensitivity causes inflammation when the allergens come into contact with the trachea, usually via the air.


Injury apart from inhalation of toxic substances can also occur with physical factors. Usually a blow may not injure the trachea. However, radiation treatment is one possible cause although uncommon. A radiation injury to the trachea is usually as a result of cancer treatment of either the larynx or thyroid gland.

What are the symptoms of tracheitis?

Tracheitis may be accompanied by infection of the neighboring parts of the respiratory tract and these symptoms may therefore also be present. The first symptoms associated with tracheitis appear within a few days after contracting the infection. Viral infections may also be accompanied by non-specific symptoms like fatigue while bacterial infections usually present mainly with localized symptoms.

  • Cough, either dry (without mucus) or productive (with mucus)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Vocal changes (sometimes)
  • Runny nose
  • Fatigue
  • Low fever

Symptoms worsen with time, particularly with bacterial infections that do not resolve spontaneously and require medical treatment.

  • Stridor or noise associated with labored breathing is frequently observed in people suffering from tracheitis. This characteristic noise is a result of obstructed windpipe due to swelling caused by inflammation.
  • Cyanosis: In some cases, the oxygen levels in the body can become low as a result of difficulty breathing and lead to cyanosis (blue color of the skin). This is a severe symptom that requires immediate medical attention.

Tracheitis Diagnosis

The healthcare provider examines the breathing in a simple setting. The breathing is usually difficult and labored as a result of inflamed and swollen windpipe. Further tests are carried out to find out the reason of chest congestion and difficulty in breathing. These tests may include checking blood oxygen levels and taking culture from trachea and/or nasal passage to check for any bacterial infection. An X-ray of the chest may also be taken to assess the extent of congestion. High number of white blood cells in blood culture also indicates towards an infection.

How to treat tracehitis?

The treatment for tracheitis depends on the cause. Viral infections usually do not require any treatment although in severe cases supportive measures are advised. Bacterial infections on the other hand usually requires antibiotics to eradicate the bacteria. The condition should be monitored carefully as a repeat course of antibiotics may be required in severe cases which do not respond to the initial course. Although antibiotics is the mainstay of treatment for bacterial tracheitis, cough suppressants may also be prescribed for symptomatic relief.

With irritants, the noxious substances in question should be avoided. Usually the inflammation should subside spontaneously and trachea will heal. However, in severe cases it may be required to use corticosteroids. With allergies, antihistamines and corticosteroids may be necessary to treat the condition as well as to prevent future allergic reactions. Desensitization therapy may sometimes be considered in chronic cases. These substances can be administered orally or with the use of inhalers. Cigarette smoking should be avoided for all cases of tracheitis.

Supportive measures like bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids and using a humidifier with a room can also help in recovering from tracheitis. These measures are particularly helpful for viral infections. It is important to note that rapid breathing, severe dyspnea (difficulty breathing), dizziness and cyanosis (blue skin tinge) requires immediate medical attention. These warning signs should be considered as a medical emergency and conservative treatment measures may not suffice. The condition needs to be assessed and treated by a medical professional.

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