Laryngitis occurs when your voice box or vocal cords become inflamed from overuse, irritation, or infection. Laryngitis can be acute (short-term), lasting less than three weeks. Or it can be chronic (long-term), lasting more than three weeks.
Many conditions can cause the inflammation that result in laryngitis. Viral infections, environmental factors, and, bacterial infections can all cause laryngitis.
Acute laryngitis is a temporary condition caused by overusing the vocal cords. Or it can be caused by an infection. Treating the underlying condition causes the laryngitis to go away.
Chronic laryngitis results from long-term exposure to irritants. And it is usually more severe and has longer-lasting effects than acute laryngitis.
Acute laryngitis can be caused by:
- viral infections
- straining your vocal cords by talking or yelling
- bacterial infections
Chronic laryngitis can be caused by:
- 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
Cancer, paralysis of the vocal cords, or changes in vocal cord shape as you age can also cause persistent hoarseness and sore throats.
The most common symptoms of laryngitis include:
- weakened voice
- loss of voice
- hoarse, dry throat
- constant tickling or minor throat irritation
- dry cough
These symptoms are usually mild and can be treated by giving your voice a break. Drinking water or other noncaffeinated fluids can help lubricate your throat.
Infants and children
Infants and children can be prone to laryngitis if they’re frequently around other children. Both viral and bacterial infections can spread quickly from child to child. Laryngitis can also develop if your child yells or sings a lot. This causes bumps to form on their vocal cords.
If you notice your child’s voice is hoarse or weak or they say that their throat hurts, make sure they rest their voice. Also have them drink fluids to ease possible viral laryngitis. Laryngitis usually goes away within a week.
If your child’s symptoms don’t improve or become worse, see their doctor. A doctor can determine if other factors are causing laryngitis or if antibiotics for a bacterial infection are needed.
Certain symptoms could also indicate your child has a serious bacterial infection around the voice box, called the epiglottis. The epiglottis is the flap of tissue that covers the larynx (voice box) and trachea (breathing tube) when you eat or drink. It keeps food particles and liquid out of your lungs.
Epiglottitis is an infection of the epiglottis and the tissue around it. During epiglottitis, tissue swells to the point that it can close off the windpipe.
Epiglottitis can be fatal if not treated. See a doctor right away if your child has:
- trouble swallowing
- problems breathing (or needs to lean forward in order to breathe)
- extra saliva
- noisy, high-pitched sounds when breathing
- a muffled voice
- a fever
Typically, your child will require a hospital stay to receive treatment. Your child will be given IV antibiotics and often glucocorticoids or dexamethasone.
Epiglottitis mostly affects children ages 2 to 6 years old. But a child of any age, or adult, can be affected. The Hib vaccine protects children from the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae type b. The vaccine has helped reduce the number of cases of epiglottitis caused by these bacteria.
When to see a doctor
You could also have common symptoms that mean you have a condition similar to laryngitis, including:
- lesions such as ulcers, cysts, or nodules on your vocal cords
- muscle tension dysphonia, a vocal condition caused by abnormal use of the vocal muscles
- vocal cord paralysis
Some symptoms can be serious or indicate underlying issues. These symptoms include:
- trouble swallowing
- coughing up blood
- a fever that doesn’t go away with treatment
- debilitating pain in your throat
See your doctor if common symptoms don't clear up after a week, or they worsen.
Laryngitis affects your vocal cords and voice box. Your doctor often starts with a visual diagnosis, using a special mirror to view your vocal cords. They might also perform a laryngoscopy to magnify the voice box for easy viewing. During a laryngoscopy, your doctor sticks a thin, flexible tube with a microscopic camera through your mouth or nose. Your doctor then looks for the following signs of laryngitis:
- lesions on the voice box
- widespread swelling, a sign of environmental causes of laryngitis
- vocal cord swelling, which can be a sign that you’ve overused your vocal cords
If your doctor sees a lesion or other suspicious mass, they may order a biopsy to rule out throat cancer. During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small piece of tissue so it can be examined in a lab.
If a virus has caused acute laryngitis, symptoms usually disappear without treatment within seven days. Doctors treat bacterial laryngitis with antibiotics, although this form of laryngitis is rare.
Treatments to ease symptoms
Your doctor might prescribe corticosteroids, medicines that can reduce inflammation, to treat both acute and chronic laryngitis.
These treatments help reduce vocal cord and voice box swelling. Corticosteroids can treat and relieve symptoms of laryngitis, especially acute viral laryngitis. For chronic laryngitis, the best treatment will address the cause of the underlying problem.
Like acute laryngitis, other conditions such as dysphonia or vocal cord paralysis can be treated with rest, vocal therapy provided by a speech pathologist, or minor procedures.
In the case of vocal fold paralysis, treatment can include phonosurgery. Phonosurgery changes the vocal cords’ position or shape to lessen the tension caused by the voice.
In rare cases, vocal cord inflammation can cause respiratory distress, which requires immediate medical attention.
A bacterial infection causing epiglottitis can also spread beyond the epiglottis and larynx to other areas in your respiratory tract and into your blood stream. If you have a bacterial infection, follow your doctor’s treatment plan closely to stop the infection from spreading.
If an underlying condition like vocal cord paralysis or throat cancer is causing your laryngitis, complications can be severe if the condition isn’t treated. Vocal cord paralysis can cause trouble breathing and swallowing. Food can also get into the lungs, which can cause pneumonia.
Advanced throat cancer can be fatal or require surgery or chemotherapy. See your doctor if your laryngitis symptoms are affecting your ability to eat, speak, or breathe, or if they’re causing you intense pain. The earlier you address serious laryngitis symptoms, the more likely your doctor can treat possible underlying conditions.
The best way to keep your vocal cords and voice box healthy is to keep them moist and free from irritants.
To avoid common irritants:
- avoid smoking and being around people who smoke
- limit your alcohol and caffeine intake
- wash your hands regularly to avoid catching colds and upper respiratory infections
- avoid toxic chemicals in the workplace
- avoid foods that cause indigestion and heartburn
In addition, try to avoid clearing your throat. This increases inflammation and irritation.