Epiglottitis

Written by Suzanne Allen | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What is Epiglottitis?

Epiglottitis is a life-threatening condition characterized by inflamed epiglottis tissue.

The epiglottis is made of cartilage and is located at the base of the tongue. It helps prevent food from entering your windpipe. The tissue of the epiglottis can swell and block your airway. This requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect that you or your child has epiglottitis, call a doctor or seek emergency medical help immediately.

Epiglottitis is uncommon, but affects mostly children. Vaccines help protect your child from contracting the bacteria (Haemophilus influenzae type b) most responsible for this type of tissue inflammation.

What Causes Epiglottitis?

A bacterial infection is the most common cause of epiglottitis. Bacteria can enter your body through inhalation and infect your epiglottis. The most common strand of bacteria that causes this condition is Haemophilus influenzae type b, also known as Hib. You can catch Hib by inhaling the germs spread when others who are already infected cough or sneeze.

Other bacteria strands that can cause epiglottitis include Streptococcus A, B, or C and Streptococcus pneumoniae. These are the same bacteria that cause strep throat. Additionally, viruses such as those that cause shingles and chickenpox can also cause epiglottitis. Fungi, such as those that cause diaper rash or yeast infections, may also contribute to inflammation of the epiglottis.

Other causes of this condition not related to bacteria, a virus, or fungi include:

  • smoking crack cocaine
  • burning your throat from drinking hot beverages
  • injuring your throat through trauma

Who Is at Risk for Epiglottitis?

Anyone can develop epiglottitis. However, the factors below can increase your risk of developing it.

Age

Children younger than 2 months of age are at a higher risk for developing epiglottitis. This is because these children have not yet received a Hib vaccine. Additionally, children ranging from 3 to 7 years of age who reside in countries not offering vaccines (or where the vaccine is hard to come by) are more susceptible.

Sex

Males are more likely to develop epiglottitis than females. Reasons for this are unclear.

Environment

If you live or work with a large number of people, you are more likely to catch the germs of others and develop an infection. Likewise, heavily populated environments such as schools or daycare centers may increase your or your child’s exposure to bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

Weak Immune System

A weak immune system can make it more difficult for your body to fight intruding germs. Poor immune function makes it easier for epiglottitis to develop.

What Are the Signs of Epiglottitis?

The signs of epiglottitis are the same regardless of the cause. However, signs may differ between children and adults. Children can develop epiglottitis within a matter of hours. In adults it develops more slowly, usually over the course of days.

Symptoms common in children include:

  • upper respiratory infection
  • fever with chills
  • lessened symptoms when leaning forward or sitting upright
  • drooling
  • scratchy and sore throat
  • hoarse voice
  • restlessness
  • breathing through the mouth

Symptoms common in adults include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • a raspy voice
  • harsh, noisy breathing
  • severe sore throat
  • no cough present
  • inability to catch your breath

Once the airway becomes blocked, an adult or child may exhibit bluish discoloration on their skin from lack of oxygen.

Untreated, the epiglottis can block the airway completely. This is a severe condition and requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect epiglottitis, contact your doctor immediately.

How Is Epiglottitis Diagnosed?

Due to the seriousness of this condition, you may be diagnosed in an emergency care setting simply by physical observations and a medical history. In most cases, if epiglottitis is suspected, you will be admitted to the hospital. Once admitted, any of the following tests may be conducted to support the diagnosis:

  • throat examination using a fiber optic tube
  • X-rays of the throat and chest to view the severity of the inflammation and infection
  • throat and blood cultures to determine the cause of infection

What Is the Treatment for Epiglottitis?

If your physician suspects epiglottitis, the first mode of treatment typically involves monitoring your oxygen levels with an oximeter. If your blood-oxygen levels become too low, you may be given oxygen through a breathing tube or mask. Your physician may also provide one or all of the following treatments:

  • intravenous fluids for nutrition and hydration until you’re able to swallow again
  • antibiotics to get rid of a bacterial infection
  • anti-inflammatory medication, such as corticosteroids, to reduce the swelling in your throat
  • a minor surgical procedure requiring a needle insertion into the trachea tissue, also known as a tracheotomy (in very severe cases) to allow exchange of oxygen and to prevent respiratory failure

In most cases, if you seek immediate medical attention, you can expect a full recovery.

Can Epiglottitis Be Prevented?

You can help reduce the risk of developing epiglottitis by following these recommendations:

  • Children should receive three to four doses of the Hib vaccine starting at 2 months of age. Typically, doses are administered at 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months. A booster may be given to your child between 12 and 15 months.
  • Wash your hands frequently or use alcohol sanitizer to prevent the spread of germs.
  • Avoid drinking after other individuals and sharing food or utensils.
  • Maintain good immune health with a proper diet.
  • If you are living or working with someone who has tested positive for Hib, ask your physician to test you for the bacteria. Prompt treatment can reduce your risk of developing epiglottitis.
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