Laryngitis is when your voice box or vocal cords become inflamed from overuse, irritation, or infection. The two main types of this condition are chronic (long-term) and acute (short-term) laryngitis.
A variety of conditions can cause the inflammation that results in laryngitis. These include viral infections, environmental factors, and in rare cases, bacterial infections.
Acute laryngitis is a temporary condition caused by an underlying infection or overuse. Treating the underlying condition will cause the laryngitis to go away. On the other hand, chronic laryngitis results from long-term exposure to irritants. This type of laryngitis tends to be more severe and have effects that last longer.
The causes of acute laryngitis include:
- viral infections
- straining vocal cords by talking or yelling more than normal
- bacterial infections (rare)
The causes of chronic laryngitis include:
- frequent exposure to harmful chemicals or allergens
- acid reflux
- frequent sinus infections
- smoking or being around smokers
- overusing your voice
- low-grade yeast infections caused by frequent use of an asthma inhaler
Other reasons behind persistent hoarseness and sore throat could be cancer, paralysis of the vocal cords, or changes in vocal cord shape that result from getting older.
The most common symptoms of laryngitis include:
- weakened voice
- loss of voice
- hoarse, dry throat
- constant tickling or minor throat irritation
- dry cough
In infants and small children, certain symptoms indicate a form of bacterial laryngitis called croup. Croup, which is inflammation of the throat, can lead to the development of epiglottitis. Epiglottitis occurs when tissue swells to the point that it begins to close the windpipe. This condition can be fatal if not treated quickly. Seek immediate medical treatment if your child has:
- trouble swallowing
- problems breathing
- extra saliva
- noisy, high-pitched sounds when breathing in
- a fever over 103°F
- a barking cough
Laryngitis affects your vocal cords and voice box. Your doctor will often start with a visual diagnosis. Your doctor will use a special mirror to view your vocal cords, or they’ll perform a laryngoscopy to magnify the voice box for easy viewing. During a laryngoscopy, your doctor will stick a thin flexible tube with a microscopic camera through your mouth or nose. Your doctor will look for the following signs of laryngitis:
- lesions on the voice box
- widespread swelling, which is a sign of environmental factors causing laryngitis
- vocal cord swelling only, which is a sign that you’re overusing your vocal cords
If your doctor notices a lesion or other suspicious mass, they may order a biopsy to rule out throat cancer. During a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small piece of tissue so it can be examined in a lab.
If a virus is the reason behind your acute laryngitis, the symptoms will more than likely disappear without treatment. Doctors treat bacterial laryngitis with antibiotics, although this form of laryngitis is rare.
Treatments to Ease Symptoms
Your doctor might prescribe corticosteroids (hormones that can reduce inflammation) to treat both acute and chronic laryngitis, which help to reduce swelling in the vocal cords and voice box.
In addition, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following home remedies to ease the symptoms of both acute and chronic laryngitis:
- using a humidifier or inhaling steam to alleviate dryness
- getting vocal therapy to analyze and correct the way you use your voice and any abnormal speech patterns that place stress on your vocal cords and voice box
- drinking lots of fluids
- gargling with salt water
- resting your voice
- avoiding screaming or talking loudly for long periods of time
- avoiding decongestants (medicines to help clear stuffy noses by drying out nasal passages), which can dry your throat
- sucking on lozenges to keep your throat lubricated
- refraining from whispering, which can strain the voice
In rare cases, vocal cord inflammation can cause respiratory distress. This situation requires immediate medical attention.
The best way to keep your vocal cords and voice box healthy is to keep them moist and free from irritants. You can avoid some irritants by doing the following:
- avoiding smoking and being around people who smoke
- limiting your alcohol and caffeine intake
- washing your hands regularly to avoid catching colds and upper respiratory infections
- trying to avoid toxic chemicals in the workplace if possible
In addition, try to avoid clearing your throat. This increases both mucus production and irritation.