Laryngitis is swelling and inflammation of the larynx. It can be acute or chronic, although in most cases, the condition is temporary and has no serious consequences. Common causes include viral infections, overuse of the voice, acid reflux, smoking, and exposure to irritants and allergens.

The larynx, sometimes known as the voice box, is home to the vocal cords. These are vital to the processes of breathing, swallowing, and talking. The vocal cords are two small folds of mucous membrane covering cartilage and muscle that vibrate to produce sound.

Laryngitis often occurs due to an acute viral infection. These infections are usually mild and last for a period of 3–7 days.

Fast facts on laryngitis

  • Viral infections such as colds are the most common causes of laryngitis.
  • Lifestyle factors, such as ongoing exposure to irritants, often cause chronic laryngitis.
  • Children with laryngitis can develop another respiratory illness called croup.
  • A doctor may recommend additional testing in more severe cases, such as a laryngoscopy.
  • Self-care measures and rest are the best treatment options for acute laryngitis.

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Laryngitis is an inflammation of the vocal cords.

The vocal cords normally open and close to generate the voice with a slow, steady movement. When a person has laryngitis, their vocal cords are swollen.

As a result of this swelling, vocal fold vibration and mucosal wave will change, which alters the sound of the voice. People with laryngitis will often have a voice that is hoarse, gravelly, or too quiet to hear properly.

In chronic laryngitis, the inflammation is ongoing. Vocal cords can become strained and develop growths, such as polyps or nodules.

Laryngitis can cause a wide range of symptoms in adults, including:

  • hoarseness
  • difficulty with speech
  • throat pain
  • low fever
  • persistent cough
  • frequent throat clearing

These symptoms begin suddenly and often become more severe over the next 2–3 days. If symptoms last for more than 3 weeks, it is likely that the case has become chronic. This suggests there is a more serious underlying cause.

If a person has laryngitis for more than 3 weeks, they should contact a doctor who can investigate the underlying cause.

Laryngitis often relates to other illnesses. Throat infections, colds, or flu can occur alongside a case of laryngitis. If a person has one of these illnesses alongside laryngitis, they may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • headache
  • swelling in the glands
  • runny nose
  • pain while swallowing
  • fatigue and malaise

The symptoms are likely to resolve without treatment by the seventh day of infection. A person should see a doctor if the symptoms persist for longer or present severely.

Symptoms in children

Symptoms of laryngitis in children can differ from symptoms in adults. The condition’s characteristics are often a hoarse, barking cough and fever, and it may also present as croup.

Croup is a contagious respiratory illness common among children. Although croup is usually a simple illness to treat, severe cases require medical attention.

Doctors recommend medical attention for children experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • difficulty with breathing or swallowing
  • a fever of over 103° Fahrenheit or 39.4° Celsius
  • drooling
  • loud, high-pitched breathing sounds when inhaling

These symptoms can also indicate epiglottitis. This is inflammation of the epiglottis, the flap of cartilage at the base of the tongue. Both adults and children can develop epiglottitis, and the condition can be life-threatening in certain cases.

A number of conditions can cause laryngitis. Acute and chronic forms of laryngitis typically result from different factors.

Infections

The most common cause of laryngitis is a viral infection. These viruses are often similar to those that cause the common cold or flu.

Overuse of the voice can also cause inflammation of the larynx, which can lead to laryngitis. Examples of overuse include loud singing or excessive shouting.

In very rare instances, diphtheria can cause laryngitis. This is a bacterial infection that spreads through droplets from coughing and sneezing. Most people in the United States have had the diphtheria vaccine.

Other causes

There are a number of causes of chronic laryngitis. Common causes of chronic laryngitis include:

  • acid reflux, a condition in which stomach acid and contents make their way up into the throat
  • bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections
  • chronic sinusitis
  • excessive coughing
  • inhaling irritants, such as allergens or toxic fumes
  • high alcohol intake
  • habitual misuse or overuse of voice
  • smoking, including secondhand smoke
  • inhaling steroid medicines, such as asthma inhalers

Doctors typically diagnose laryngitis with a physical examination that assesses the ears, nose, throat, and voice. Most cases do not require any additional testing.

The most common symptom of the condition is hoarseness, so doctors will take care to listen to the voice of the person when diagnosing laryngitis. They may also ask questions about lifestyle, potential exposure to airborne irritants, and other related diseases.

If a person presents with chronic hoarseness, a doctor may recommend additional testing to fully examine the vocal cords. Other conditions, such as cancer in the throat area, can cause chronic hoarseness. This symptom will require follow-up tests to rule out a more serious illness.

Anyone with laryngitis symptoms that last longer than 3 weeks should consult their doctor. In some cases, a doctor may refer the person with laryngitis to an otolaryngologist, also known as an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.

An ENT specialist may also perform a laryngoscopy to observe the motion of the vocal cords when in use.

During a laryngoscopy, a doctor will either shine a light down the person’s throat and use a series of instruments to inspect the inside of the throat or pass a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscope through the person’s nose. This procedure can help them determine the presence of any polyps or nodules on the vocal cords.

An ENT specialist may also wish to carry out a biopsy if they feel that a suspicious area of tissue requires further assessment.

During a biopsy, a medical professional removes tissues from the body and sends them to a lab for inspection. In the lab, a pathologist will examine the tissues and look for certain cells, such as cancer cells.

The best treatment for cases of acute laryngitis is rest, home remedies, and self-care measures that can relieve symptoms.

Self-management

Doctors will normally advise rest to manage the symptoms of laryngitis.

For laryngitis, rest means limiting the use of the larynx. A person should avoid talking, singing, or using the voice box. Although whispering may seem like a gentler alternative to speaking at normal volume, this tightly stretches the vocal cords, hampering their recovery. This means a person with laryngitis should avoid whispering.

Other simple home remedies include:

  • avoiding decongestants, as these dry out the throat
  • breathing moist air
  • using acetaminophens, such as paracetamol, or ibuprofen to control the pain
  • avoiding inhaling irritants, such as smoking or secondhand smoke
  • drinking plenty of fluids

Medications

Doctors may prescribe antibiotics in cases where a bacterial infection is the cause of laryngitis. However, in most cases, laryngitis is viral, and antibiotics are not appropriate.

A doctor may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce vocal cord inflammation in severe or urgent cases. This may apply to people who use their voice professionally, such as singers or public speakers. Infants with severe croup may also receive a course of corticosteroids.

Chronic laryngitis may require more extensive ongoing treatment. The cause of the inflammation will determine the specific treatment. If another condition, such as acid reflux or sinusitis, is causing the laryngitis, then treatment for that condition can also treat the laryngitis symptoms.

Laryngitis treatment may also require lifestyle changes. For example, people with nodules need to relearn vocal habits to avoid further trauma to the cords. A doctor may recommend speech therapy or training in such cases. If a person has laryngitis, they should also avoid alcohol, tobacco smoke, and irritants.

If polyp or nodule growth causes damage to a person’s vocal cords and speech therapy is not successful, they may need surgery. A person will also require surgery if they have cancer or papilloma cysts.

Prevention

People can take a number of measures to limit dryness and irritation to the vocal cords and help reduce the risk of laryngitis:

  • avoiding clearing the throat
  • taking steps to prevent upper respiratory tract infections, such as practicing good hygiene and avoiding contact with people who have contagious infections
  • quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke where possible
  • limiting or eliminating alcohol and caffeine intake, as these can increase the risk of dehydration
  • taking precautions to avoid reflux, such as avoiding eating late at night, not chewing gum, and elevating while sleeping

Laryngitis is the name for inflammation of the larynx. The larynx is the voice box.

Laryngitis can be acute or chronic. It is most commonly a temporary issue that lasts 3–7 days and goes away without treatment.

Common causes of laryngitis include viral infections, overuse of the voice, acid reflux, smoking, and exposure to irritants and allergens.

A doctor will diagnose laryngitis with a physical exam. They may also use a laryngoscopy to observe the person’s larynx while in use.

The most common treatment for acute laryngitis is rest and self-care. A person with laryngitis should rest their voice, avoid smoking, avoid contact with irritants, and drink plenty of fluids.

If a person has laryngitis due to another condition, then a doctor will treat the other condition that is causing the laryngitis.

A person should also take steps to prevent upper respiratory tract infections to lower their risk of laryngitis.

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