The larynx is a small structure of cartilage that connects the throat to the windpipe. It is found in the front of the neck and houses the vocal cords, producing speech sounds and contributing to respiration.

The larynx is about 4–5 centimeters in length and width. Many conditions can affect it, including laryngitis.

This article will explore the location, anatomy, and purpose of the larynx. It will then list and explain several conditions that can affect it.

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The position of the larynx changes as people age. During infancy, it sits behind the jaw between the soft palate — the back part of the roof of the mouth — and the epiglottis. The epiglottis is the small piece of cartilage that seals off the windpipe when a person swallows.

As a person matures, the larynx shifts backward and down the throat. In adulthood, it sits about halfway down the neck below the epiglottis and above the trachea, also known as the windpipe.

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Illustration by Diego Sabogal

The larynx is a tube-shaped passageway that connects the throat (pharynx) to the windpipe (trachea).

Main sections

It consists of three sections:

  • Supralarynx: This section includes the top portion of the larynx and houses the vestibular folds, known as the false vocal cords.
  • Larynx: Refers to the middle portion of the larynx, which contains the vocal folds, or true vocal cords.
  • Sublarynx: This section makes up the bottom part of the larynx that connects to the trachea.

Cartilage

It also consists of nine cartilage structures:

  • Thyroid cartilage: This structure wraps around the front and sides of the uppermost part of the larynx. The thyroid cartilage also forms the Adam’s apple.
  • Epiglottis: This structure attaches to the thyroid cartilage’s inner surface, covering the top opening of the larynx.
  • Cricoid cartilage: This structure is also known as the cricoid ring. It forms a closed circle at the bottom of the larynx.
  • Arytenoid cartilages: A pair of flexible pyramid-shaped cartilages that cover the back part of the cricoid cartilage. They support the vocal cords.
  • Corniculate cartilages: These structures are small cone-shaped cartilages that sit on the tips of the arytenoid cartilages.
  • Cuneiform cartilages: These structures support the epiglottis and vocal folds.

Ligaments and membranes

Ligaments and membranes in the larynx include:

  • Extrinsic ligaments and membranes: These ligaments and membranes attach the upper portion of the larynx to the hyoid bone and the lower part to the trachea. They sit on the outside of the larynx.
  • Intrinsic ligaments and membranes: These ligaments and membranes form internal connections between the various structures of cartilage that form the larynx.
  • Mucous membrane: This membrane lines the inner surface of the larynx.

Soft tissue folds

Finally, the hollow area inside the larynx contains two types of soft tissue folds:

  • Vestibular folds: Also known as false vocal cords, these sit on top of the vocal folds and protect the larynx. As their name suggests, these folds do not produce sound.
  • Vocal folds: These soft tissue folds are the true vocal cords. They project from the inner walls of the larynx and cross over each other. Various muscles control the movement of the vocal cords.

The larynx plays a vital role in breathing and speech.

Breathing

The membranes and cartilages that make up the larynx protect the lower respiratory tract. The epiglottis and vestibular folds seal off the larynx during swallowing. This closure prevents food from entering the trachea, which can lead to choking.

Speech

The central muscles of the larynx and the posterior cricoarytenoid muscle spread the vocal cords to help maximize the passage of air to and from the lungs.

When a person speaks, the laryngeal muscles pull the vocal cords together, building air pressure in the larynx.

The vocal cords vibrate as air from the lungs rushes past them. These vibrations create sound waves, which the mouth shapes into words.

The pharynx, commonly known as the throat, works with both the respiratory and digestive tracts, while the larynx is purely a respiratory organ.

The pharynx is part of the respiratory and digestive systems, and it extends from the nose to the trachea and esophagus.

However, the larynx shares some connections with the pharynx, which has three parts:

  • Nasopharynx: Sits behind the nose and connects the nasal passageways to the rest of the respiratory system. There are two small openings, one on either side, that connect the nasal pharynx to the ears. These openings are called Eustachian tubes.
  • Oropharynx: Sits behind the mouth and connects to the larynx and the laryngopharynx.
  • Laryngopharynx: Sits behind the larynx and connects the oropharynx to the esophagus.

Inflammation of the larynx, also known as laryngitis, usually occurs due to an infection or overuse injury.

Doctors classify the condition according to the duration of symptoms. Acute laryngitis usually lasts 3–7 days, while chronic laryngitis lasts more than 3 weeks.

Laryngitis symptoms

Laryngitis can trigger the following symptoms:

Laryngitis causes

Causes of laryngitis include:

Learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for laryngitis here.

Overusing the larynx from yelling, screaming, or singing can damage the vocal cords.

This overuse may result in:

  • Vocal cord polyps: Soft, inflammatory lesions that develop on the vocal cords.
  • Vocal cord nodules: Firm, noncancerous growths forming on the vocal cords.
  • Vocal cord hemorrhage:A blood vessel on the surface of a vocal cord can rupture, filling the surrounding tissue with blood. A person with a hemorrhaged vocal cord may experience a sudden loss of voice.

Injury signs

Signs of a laryngeal injury include:

Learn more about what a person should do if they have lost their voice here.

Laryngeal papillomatosis or respiratory papillomatosis can occur due to the human papillomavirus (HPV) types 6 or 11. However, cases are rare.

Infection with either HPV type can cause noncancerous growths, called papillomas, to develop in the larynx. Some people may also develop genital warts.

Laryngeal papillomatosis symptoms

Symptoms of laryngeal papillomatosis include:

Without treatment, laryngeal papillomatosis can spread to the lungs, which can lead to recurrent pneumonia or chronic lung disease.

In extremely rare cases, some papillomas may become cancerous.

Spasmodic dysphonia, or laryngeal dystonia, occurs when the muscles controlling the vocal cords involuntarily spasm. These muscle spasms affect the way the vocal cords vibrate.

Treatments for this condition include speech therapy, Botox injections, and surgery.

Spasmodic dysphonia symptoms

Symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia include:

  • a tight or strained voice
  • a weak or breathy voice
  • voice breaks or trembles while speaking

Spasmodic dysphonia causes

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, spasmodic dysphonia often results from issues with the basal ganglia. These are the clusters of neurons in the center of the brain that control motor movement.

Vocal cord paralysis occurs when one or both vocal cords cannot open or close properly. This condition can impact a person’s ability to breathe, speak, and swallow normally.

Voice therapy and surgery can correct vocal cord paralysis.

Vocal cord paralysis causes

Possible causes include:

Learn more about vocal cord paralysis here.

The larynx is a small structure composed of cartilage and soft tissues that serves as a pathway between the throat and the windpipe. It also houses the vocal cords, which are responsible for producing speech sounds.

Many different health conditions can affect the larynx, including laryngitis, vocal cord nodules, and vocal cord paralysis. Doctors can treat these conditions with techniques that include voice therapy and surgery.