Bacterial Infections In Children: Symptoms, Risks, And Treatment

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Bacteria are single-cell organisms that are visible under the microscope. Some bacteria present on or within the human body are harmless and usually helpful. However, some bacteria can cause infections in humans.

Bacterial infections are one of the major reasons for pediatric emergency visits, especially in younger children. You may follow the prescribed antibiotic treatment even if the symptoms disappear to prevent antibiotic resistance.

Read this post to know more about the causes, risk factors, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of bacterial infections in children.

Common Bacterial Infections In Children

The following bacterial infections are common in children (1).

  • Skin infections such as impetigo
  • Ear infections such as otitis media and otitis externa
  • Strep throat (throat infections)
  • Sinusitis (sinus infections)
  • Lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Meningitis and brain abscess formation
  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)

Blood infections, brain infections, such as encephalitis and meningitis, and heart infections, such as endocarditis and myocarditis are also seen in some children. However, these are not common. Children with immune system deficiencies are more likely to develop bacterial infections than healthy children.

Causes Of Bacterial Infections

Bacteria must enter one’s body to cause infections. Bacteria can spread from an infected person to another in the following ways.

  • Air (respiratory) droplets spread respiratory infections
  • Cuts, wounds, and bug bites could facilitate the entry of bacteria through the skin
  • Consuming contaminated food or water
  • Sharing personal items and utensils
  • Dental caries could increase the risk of other bacterial infections
  • Touching contaminated surfaces and not washing hands

Bacterial infections can spread in different ways. However, maintaining proper hand hygiene could prevent the spread of most bacterial infections.

Risk Factors For Bacterial Infections In Children

The following conditions may increase the risk of contracting a bacterial infection in children (2).

  • Immune system disorders
  • Cancer
  • Absence of spleen (asplenia)
  • Sickle cell diseases
  • Not vaccinated

Children with these risk factors are often provided with antibiotic prophylaxis (preventive antibiotic course) to prevent serious infections. In case your child is not vaccinated, discuss with their pediatrician and begin vaccination since this helps avoid many bacterial diseases.

Signs And Symptoms Of Bacterial Infections

Signs and symptoms of bacterial infections may vary depending on the severity and affected part of the body. The common symptoms seen in most bacterial infections include (3):

  • Fever
  • Pain or discomfort in the affected part of the body
  • Chills

Other symptoms seen in various bacterial infections include:

  • Cough
  • Phlegm
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Burning during urination
  • Cloudy or thick urine
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Skin rashes
  • Swelling

The type of infection can be identified based on the signs and symptoms. In the case of severe infections, treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics may commence, even before the test results are available.

Prevention Of Bacterial Infections

Routine immunization is the best way to prevent vaccine-preventable bacterial infections. Maintaining good hygiene and avoiding contact with infected people could help prevent the spread of bacterial diseases.

The following bacterial infections are preventable with routine immunization (4).

  • Pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Diphtheria
  • Tetanus
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B infections
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae infections
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Cholera
  • Meningococcal meningitis and sepicaemia

Diagnosis Of Bacterial Infection

The following tests help identify the presence of bacteria in the body (2).

  • Blood test
  • Urinalysis
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis in case of brain infections
  • Other body fluid analysis
  • Tissue analysis
  • Sample culture

Bacteria from these samples are often identified under the microscope or by rapid detection tests that determine the bacterial genetic material. If the sample’s bacterial population is too low, a culture of the sample is prepared in the laboratories. The culture can often help identify the infection-causing bacteria within 24 to 48 hours.

In some cases, the culture is done to test the bacteria’s susceptibility and resistance to antibiotics. This may help the physician prescribe the most effective antibiotic. Additional tests, such as X-rays, MRI scan, CT scan, echocardiography, and ultrasound, are ordered to identify the infection’s clinical manifestations and complications.

Treatment For Bacterial Infections

Antibiotics are medications that treat bacterial infections. These medications kill (bactericidal) or stop the growth (bacteriostatic) of bacteria in the body. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are effective against many bacteria, whereas narrow-spectrum antibiotics target only a particular type of bacteria (5).

Depending on the severity of infection, doctors may prescribe a single or combination of antibiotics. The duration of treatment and dosage may vary in different diseases. Some infections may require a single dose or three-day treatment course, whereas certain infections, such as tuberculosis (TB), may need treatment for a few months.

In some cases, surgical treatments are required to remove abscesses or pus collection due to bacterial infections. Depending on the clinical manifestations and complications, children may require intravenous fluids and symptomatic treatment for stabilization.

Complications Of Bacterial Infections

Although many bacterial infections are treatable with antibiotics, some may not respond to usual medications due to resistance. Untreated bacterial infections could result in the following complications (6).

  • Severe infection
  • Abscesses
  • The spread of infection to another part of the body
  • Bacteremia (bacteria in the bloodstream)
  • Sepsis or SIRS (systemic inflammatory response syndrome)
  • Septic shock

The complications could vary based on the type of bacterial infection. High fever-related complications, such as seizures and dehydration, could be life-threatening if not managed on time. Complications of bacterial infections can be fatal if left untreated.

Using nonprescription antibiotics and not following the appropriate duration and dose of antibiotics can result in resistance. This is when bacteria do not respond to treatments with antibiotics. Resistance could result in recurrent infections and requires more complex medications to deal with the infection.

If you notice any signs and symptoms of bacterial infections in your child, avoid unnecessary self-medication with antibiotics. Speak to a doctor to determine the causative bacteria and follow antibiotic dosage based on the prescription.


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