A comparative study of the etiology of adult upper and lower respiratory tract infections in the community Academic Article uri icon


  • Lower respiratory tract infection and upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) are very common, but the etiology is not diagnosed in routine practice. The objective of this study was to determine and compare the frequency distribution of the various infectious etiologies for these diseases. One hundred seventy five adults in the community with febrile LRTI and 75 with febrile URTI were included in a purely serologically based prospective study. Paired sera were obtained for each of the patients and were tested by EIA or immunofluorescence methods to identify 14 different pathogens. Only a significant change in antibody titers between the paired sera was considered diagnostic. At least one infectious etiology was identified in 167 patients (67%). In the LRTI group, infection with at least one of 7 respiratory viruses was found in 88 patients (50%). One of the atypical pathogens was found in 40 patients (23%), of these Legionella spp. in 19 (11%) and Mycoplasma pneumoniae in 18 (10%). A bacterial etiology was found in 19 patients (11%), of these Streptococcus pneumoniae in 8 (5%) and β-hemolytic streptococci group A in 5 (3%). The frequency distribution of etiologies in the URTI group was not significantly different from the LRTI group, except for M. pneumoniae that was identified in only one patient with URTI ( p = 0.015). More than one etiologic agent was found in 42 (17%) of the patients. LRTI is caused by a broad spectrum of etiologies, with respiratory viruses predominating and a moderate, but significant, prevalence of atypical pathogens. The frequency distribution of etiologies for URTI is similar to LRTI. In a significant proportion of patients with URTI and LRTI there is serologic evidence of infection with more than one pathogen. The justification and benefit of distinguishing between URTI and LRTI in routine clinical work is doubtful. When a decision is reached to treat RTI patients with an antibiotic, it is logical to use a macrolide or tetracycline.

publication date

  • January 1, 2002