Laryngitis is when the voice box or vocal cords become inflamed from overuse, irritation, or infection. There are two main types of laryngitis: chronic (long-term) and acute (short-term).
The inflammation that causes laryngitis can be tied to a variety of conditions. These include viral infections, environmental factors, and in rare cases, bacterial infections.
Acute laryngitis is a temporary condition caused by an underlying viral infection. When the underlying infection is treated, acute laryngitis will go away. On the other hand, chronic laryngitis results from long-term exposure to irritating or toxic environmental factors. This type of laryngitis tends to be more severe and have longer lasting effects.
Causes of acute laryngitis include:
- viral infections
- straining vocal cords by yelling/talking more than normal
- bacterial infections (rare)
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 (AAO)
Other reasons behind persistent hoarseness and sore throat could be cancer, paralysis of the vocal cords, or the change of vocal cord shape that results from getting older.
The most common symptoms of laryngitis include:
- weakened voice
- loss of voice
- hoarse, dry throat
- constant tickling or minor irritation of throat
- dry cough
Croup vs. Laryngitis
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
- fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit
- a barking cough
Laryngitis is a condition affecting the vocal cords and voice box. Because of this, your doctor will often start with a visual diagnosis. Your doctor will use a special mirror to view your vocal cords, or perform a procedure called a laryngoscopy that magnifies 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. Doctors will look for the following signs of laryngitis:
- lesions on the voice box
- widespread swelling—a sign of environmental factors behind laryngitis (VF)
- vocal cord swelling only—a sign of overuse of vocal cords
If your doctor notices a lesion or other suspicious mass, he or she may order a biopsy to rule out symptoms of throat cancer. During a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small piece of tissue so it can be examined in a lab.
Treating the Underlying Cause
If a virus is the reason behind your acute laryngitis, the symptoms will more than likely disappear without treatment. Bacterial laryngitis is treated 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: This is a form of therapy in which the way you use your voice is analyzed, and any abnormal speech patterns (which place stress on vocal cords and box) are corrected.
- drinking lots of fluids
- gargling with salt water
- resting voice
- avoiding screaming or talking loud 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 (Mayo Clinic, 2012)
The best way to keep your vocal cords and voice box healthy is to keep them moist and free from irritants. This will include:
- Avoid smoking and being around people who smoke.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine intake.
- Avoid clearing your throat, since this increases both mucus production and irritation.
- Practice healthy hand washing to avoid colds and upper respiratory infections.
- If possible, try to avoid toxic chemicals in the workplace.