Epiglottitis is characterized by inflamed tissue in your epiglottis. It’s a potentially life-threatening illness.
The epiglottis is at the base of the tongue. It’s made up of mostly cartilage. It helps prevent food from entering your windpipe. The tissue that makes up the epiglottis can swell and block your airway. This requires immediate medical attention. If you think that you or your child has epiglottitis, call 911 or seek emergency medical help immediately.
Epiglottitis is relatively uncommon, especially in adults. However, it requires prompt diagnosis and treatment in children, who are the most susceptible. Haemophilus influenzae type b is the bacterium that’s the most responsible for this type of tissue inflammation. Vaccines, such as the Hib vaccine, help protect your child from contracting this bacteria.
A bacterial infection is the most common cause of epiglottitis. Bacteria can enter your body when you breathe in. They can then infect your epiglottis. The most common strain 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 an infected person coughs, sneezes, or blows their nose.
Other bacterial strains 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 chicken pox 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 include:
- smoking crack cocaine
- burning your throat from drinking hot beverages
- throat injury from trauma, such as a stabbing or gunshot wound
Anyone can develop epiglottitis. However, there are several factors that can increase your risk of developing it.
Children younger than 2 months of age are at a higher risk for developing epiglottitis. This is because these children haven’t yet received a Hib vaccine.
Additionally, children ranging from 3 to 7 years of age who live in countries not offering vaccines or where the vaccine is hard to come by are at increased risk. Children whose parents purposely refrain from vaccinating with the Hib vaccine are also at increased risk for epiglottitis.
Males are more likely to develop epiglottitis than females. The reason for this is unclear.
If you live or work with a large number of people, you’re more likely to catch the germs of others and develop an infection. Likewise, heavily populated environments such as schools or day care centers may increase your or your child’s exposure to bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The risk of getting epiglottitis is increased in those environments.
Weak Immune System
A weakened immune system can make it more difficult for your body to fight germs. Poor immune function makes it easier for epiglottitis to develop.
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.
The symptoms of epiglottitis that are common in children include:
- an upper respiratory infection
- a fever with chills
- lessened symptoms when leaning forward or sitting upright
- a scratchy and sore throat
- a hoarse voice
- breathing through the mouth
Symptoms common in adults include:
- difficulty breathing
- a raspy or muffled voice
- harsh, noisy breathing
- a severe sore throat
- an inability to catch your breath
An adult or child may have bluish discoloration on their skin from lack of oxygen after the airway becomes blocked.
If epiglottitis is untreated, it can block your airway completely. This is a critical condition and requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect epiglottitis, seek medical attention immediately.
Due to the seriousness of this condition, you may receive a diagnosis in an emergency care setting simply by physical observations and a medical history. In most cases, if your doctor thinks you might have epiglottitis, they’ll admit you into the hospital. Once you’re admitted, your doctor may need to perform any of the following tests to support the diagnosis:
- a throat examination using a fiber optic tube
- X-rays of your throat and chest to view the severity of the inflammation and infection
- throat and blood cultures to determine the cause of infection, such as bacteria or a virus
If your doctor thinks you have epiglottitis, the first mode of treatment typically involves monitoring your oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter device. If your blood oxygen levels become too low, you’ll likely get supplemental oxygen through a breathing tube or mask. Your doctor may also give you one or all of the following treatments:
- intravenous fluids for nutrition and hydration until you’re able to swallow again
- antibiotics to treat a known or suspected bacterial infection
- anti-inflammatory medication, such as corticosteroids, to reduce the swelling in your throat
You may also need a minor surgical procedure in which your doctor inserts a needle into your trachea. This is also known as a tracheotomy (in very severe cases) to allow exchange of oxygen and to prevent respiratory failure.
If you seek immediate medical attention, you can expect a full recovery in most cases.
You can help reduce the risk of getting epiglottitis by doing several things.
Children should receive 3 to 4 doses of the Hib vaccine starting at 2 months of age. Typically, children receive a dose at 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months old. Your child will likely also receive a booster between 12 and 15 months old.
Wash your hands frequently or use alcohol sanitizer to prevent the spread of germs. Avoid drinking from the same cup as other people and sharing food or utensils. Maintain good immune health with a proper diet.
If you live or work with someone who has tested positive for Hib, ask your doctor to test you for the bacteria. Getting treatment quickly can reduce your risk of developing epiglottitis.