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Laryngitis

Laryngitis is swelling and irritation (inflammation) of the voice box (larynx). Laryngitis is usually associated with hoarseness or loss of voice.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The voice box (larynx) is located at the top of the airway to the lungs (trachea). The larynx contains the vocal cords. When the vocal cords become inflamed or infected, they swell. This can cause hoarseness. Sometimes the airway can get blocked.

The most common form of laryngitis is an infection caused by a virus, such as cold or flu viruses. It may also be caused by:

Laryngitis often occurs with an upper respiratory infection .

Several forms of laryngitis occur in children that can lead to dangerous or fatal respiratory blockage. These forms include:

Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes or glands in the neck

Signs and tests

A physical exam can find whether hoarseness is caused by a respiratory tract infection.

Patients with hoarseness that lasts more than a month (especially smokers) will need to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor (otolaryngologist) for tests of the throat and upper airway.

Treatment

Common laryngitis is often caused by a virus, therefore antibiotics likely will not help. Your health care provider will make this decision.

Resting your voice helps to reduce inflammation of the vocal cords. A humidifier may soothe the scratchy feeling that comes with laryngitis. Decongestants and pain medicines may relieve the symptoms of an upper respiratory infection.

Expectations (prognosis)

Laryngitis that is not caused by a serious condition often gets better on its own.

Complications

In rare cases, severe respiratory distress develops. This requires immediate medical attention.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • A small child who is not teething has difficulty breathing, swallowing, or is drooling
  • A child less than 3 months old has hoarseness
  • Hoarseness has lasted for more than 1 week in a child, or 2 weeks in an adult

Prevention

  • Try to avoid people who have upper respiratory infections during cold and flu season.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Do not strain your voice.
  • Stopping smoking can help prevent tumors of the head and neck or lungs, which can lead to hoarseness.

References

Merati AL. Acute and chronic laryngitis. Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund VJ et al. eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010; chap 63.

Schwartz SR, Cohen SM, Dailey SH, et al. Clinical practice guideline: hoarseness (dysphonia). Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2009;141(3 Suppl 2):S1-S31.

Updated: 11/10/2012

Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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