Laryngitis occurs when your voice box (larynx) and vocal cords become swollen and irritated. This fairly common condition often causes hoarseness or loss of voice. A range of issues can cause laryngitis, including long-term smoking, acid reflux, voice overuse, or viral infections such as cold and flu viruses. Your risk increases if you have allergies or pneumonia, or if you regularly come in contact with irritating chemicals. Treatment usually involves adequate rest and hydration, though some cases require medication. In more serious cases, surgery may be needed. Recovery usually depends on the cause and severity of your condition. Most cases are short-term and can be treated at home, however prolonged symptoms — such as those lasting longer than three weeks — can be indicative of a more serious condition and require medical attention.
Laryngitis may be acute or chronic. The symptoms of each are similar but vary in duration. Chronic laryngitis can develop over long periods of time and last for weeks or months, whereas acute laryngitis usually comes on suddenly and clears up within a few days to a week.
A variety of factors can cause chronic laryngitis. Long-term cigarette smoking can irritate the vocal cords and cause your throat to swell. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) causes the contents of your stomach to move up into your esophagus, irritating your throat.
Other conditions that may lead to chronic laryngitis include:
- excessive exposure to toxic chemicals
- complications from the flu or a chronic cold
People at risk for chronic laryngitis are tobacco smokers and people who are regularly exposed to irritating inhalants and/or toxic chemicals. You also have a greater risk if you have chronic upper respiratory infections (such as the common cold) or suffer from allergies. Additionally, if you talk or sing excessively, you can develop ulcers or growths on your vocal cords over time. As you age, the vocal cords also lose their ability to vibrate, making you more susceptible to chronic laryngitis.
With chronic laryngitis, common symptoms include hoarseness, loss of voice, raw/irritated throat, and a dry cough. You might also have a fever, swelling of the glands in your neck (lymph nodes), and difficulty swallowing. Acute laryngitis will typically clear up within two weeks; symptoms lasting longer than two weeks should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.
See your doctor if your throat has been hoarse for longer than two weeks. In children, it is important to see a doctor if symptoms persist for a week. If the child is less than 3 months old and has trouble breathing or swallowing, seek medical help right away. Seek immediate medical attention if your child has vocal cord swelling accompanied by a “barking” cough, fever, or difficulty breathing or swallowing. These may be signs of croup (swelling of the area around the vocal cords), common in infants and children.
Your doctor will examine the throat to determine the cause of the laryngitis, and will base treatment around it. An infection in your respiratory tract can cause the symptoms. If you are a smoker and are hoarse for longer than a month, you may need to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
If you speak or sing for a living, you will need to rest your voice until the inflammation subsides and try to limit the amount of time you use your voice thereafter. In general, getting more rest helps your body to overcome the condition.
Your doctor may also recommend that you use a humidifier in your home in order to add moisture to the environment and help soothe your scratchy throat. Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, but avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can increase inflammation. You can also keep your throat moist by sucking on lozenges, but be careful to avoid substances that will irritate your throat, such as mentholated cough drops.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if a rare bacterial infection exists, but almost all cases of laryngitis are due to a viral infection, making antibiotics ineffective. Decongestants, pain relievers, and steroid injections may also be prescribed, however, treatment for chronic laryngitis is aimed at the underlying cause and will vary.
Your doctor may recommend surgery in more serious cases, such as throat polyps or loose or paralyzed vocal cords. Throat polyp removal is typically an outpatient procedure. If your vocal cords are loose or paralyzed, your doctor may recommend a collagen injection or surgery.
General healthy practices will help you to avoid chronic laryngitis. Washing your hands and avoiding contact with others who have the flu or cold will limit the risk of catching a virus. If you use your voice excessively for a living, take frequent breaks to reduce the possibility of inflammation. Avoid working in locations that constantly expose you to harsh chemicals. If you smoke, quitting immediately will greatly lower your risk for the condition.