What causes hoarseness? 28 possible conditions

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Hoarseness

Hoarseness, an abnormal change in your voice, is a common symptom often experienced with a dry, scratchy throat. If you are hoarse, you may have a raspy, weak, or airy quality to your voice that prevents you from making smooth vocal sounds.

This symptom commonly stems from an issue with the vocal cords and may involve an inflamed larynx. This is known as laryngitis. If you have persistent hoarseness—lasting for more than a couple of weeks—seek prompt medical attention, as you may have a serious underlying medical condition.

Common Underlying Causes of Hoarseness

Hoarseness is typically caused by a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract. Other common factors that can cause, contribute, or worsen your condition include:

  • acid reflux
  • smoking
  • drinking caffeinated and alcoholic beverages
  • screaming or overusing your vocal cords
  • allergies
  • inhaling toxic substances
  • coughing excessively

Other less common causes of hoarseness include:

  • polyps (abnormal growths) on the vocal cords
  • throat, thyroid, or lung cancers
  • damage to the throat, such as from the insertion of a tube
  • male adolescence
  • poor-functioning thyroid gland
  • aortic aneurysms (swelling of the aorta, the largest artery of the heart)
  • nerve conditions that weaken the voice box muscles

How to Recognize an Emergency

While hoarseness is typically not an emergency, it may be linked to some serious medical conditions. Speak with your doctor if your hoarseness becomes a persistent issue, lasting more than one week for a child and two weeks for an adult. See your doctor promptly if hoarseness is accompanied by drooling (in a child) and difficulty swallowing or breathing. A sudden inability to speak or put together coherent sentences may indicate a serious underlying medical condition.

Addressing and Easing Symptoms

See your doctor if preventative home health options listed below do not lessen the duration of your hoarseness. He or she will be able to help determine the cause of your symptoms and the proper treatment.

  • Rest your voice for a few days. Avoid talking and shouting. Do not whisper, as this actually strains your vocal cords.
  • Drink plenty of hydrating fluids. Fluids may relieve some of your symptoms and moisten your throat. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as these can dry out your throat.
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Adding a vaporizer can help open your airway and ease breathing.
  • Take a hot shower, as the steam from the shower will help open your airways and provide moisture.
  • Stop or limit your smoking, as the smoke dries and irritates your throat.
  • Moisten your throat by sucking on lozenges or chewing gum. This stimulates salivation and may help soothe your throat.
  • Eliminate allergens from your environment. Allergies can often worsen or trigger hoarseness.
  • Do not use decongestants for your hoarseness, as these irritate and dry out the throat.

What Happens at the Doctor’s Office

If you arrive at your doctor’s office or emergency room and are experiencing breathing difficulty, the first mode of treatment may be to restore your ability to breathe. Your doctor may give you a breathing treatment (using a mask) or insert a breathing tube to assist you in breathing.

Your doctor will likely want to take an inventory of your symptoms and a thorough medical history to determine the underlying cause. Your doctor may ask about the quality and strength of your voice and the frequency and duration of your symptoms. He or she may ask about factors that worsen the condition of your symptoms, such as smoking and shouting or speaking for long periods. Your doctor will assess any additional symptoms, such as fever or fatigue.

Your doctor will likely examine your throat with a tiny mirror to look for any inflammation or abnormalities. Depending on the symptoms reported, he or she may take a throat culture, run a series of X-rays of your throat, or recommend a CT scan (a type of X-ray). Your doctor may also take your blood to run a complete blood count. This assesses your red and white blood cells and hemoglobin levels.

Consequences of Untreated Hoarseness

If you have persistent and chronic hoarseness, a serious underlying medical condition may be the cause. Early intervention can often improve your prognosis. Identifying the cause of your persistent hoarseness may prevent your condition from worsening and limit any damage to your vocal cords or throat.

Preventing Hoarseness

There are several actions that you can take to prevent hoarseness. Listed below are some prevention methods that may help to protect your vocal cords.

  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Breathing smoke can cause irritation of your vocal cords and larynx and can dry out your throat.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Hoarseness is often caused by a viral respiratory infection. Washing your hands will prevent the spread of germs and keep you healthy.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Fluids thin the mucus in the throat and keep it moist.
  • Avoid fluids that dehydrate your body, such as caffeinated beverages and alcoholic drinks. These operate as diuretics and cause you to lose water.
  • Try to limit the urge to clear your throat. This may increase the inflammation of your vocal cords and overall irritation in your throat.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Strep Throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and pain in the throat. It's especially common in children. Look out for sudden fever, a red throat with white patches, headache, and chills.

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2

Croup

Croup is a viral condition that causes swelling around the vocal cords. It is characterized by breathing difficulties and a bad cough that sounds like a barking seal. Many of the viruses responsible for croup also caus...

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3

Laryngitis

Laryngitis occurs when the voice box or vocal cords become inflamed from overuse, irritation, or infection. It can be short or long term. The inflammation that causes laryngitis can be tied to a variety of conditions...

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4

Epiglottitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Epiglottitis is a life-threatening condition characterized by inflamed epiglottis tissue. Once the airway becomes blocked, an adult or child may exhibit bluish discoloration of their skin or lips from lack of oxygen.

Read more »

5

Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that affects the larynx. The larynx is your voice box and it contains cartilage and muscles that help you talk. This type of cancer can damage your voice. When not treate...

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6

Chronic Laryngitis

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, includin...

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7

Goiter

A goiter is the abnormal increase in the size of your thyroid gland, a gland in the neck. Goiters have many possible causes, including iodine deficiency. The primary symptom of a goiter is noticeable swelling in you...

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8

Esophageal Cancer

The esophagus is a muscular tube that is responsible for moving food from the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer occurs when a malignant (cancerous) tumor forms in the esophagus lining. As it grows it can affec...

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9

Thyroid Nodule

A thyroid nodule is a lump in your thyroid gland that can be solid or filled with fluid, and is rarely cancerous.

Read more »

10

Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is a neuromusclar disorder. It results in weakness of the skeletal muscles, and can cause double vision and drooping of the eyelid.

Read more »

11

Diphtheria

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that affects the membranes of the throat and nose. Although it spreads easily, diphtheria can be prevented through the use of vaccines. If left untreated, diphtheria can cause sever...

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12

Thyroid Cancer

The thyroid is a part of the endocrine system. It is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the throat. It has a left lobe and a right lobe. The middle of the thyroid gland, where the lobes meet, is called th...

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13

Acromegaly

Acromegaly is a rare condition. It causes excess growth in the bones and soft tissues of the body. Children with the condition can grow to abnormal heights. They may also have an exaggerated bone structure that give...

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14

Hashimoto's Disease

Hashimoto's disease damages your thyroid function. It is also called chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis or just chronic thyroiditis. Hashimoto's is the most common cause of hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid.Th...

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15

Types of Acid Reflux

Acid reflux disease or GERD is a chronic digestive disease with symptoms of esophogeal burning & heartburn. GERD can be managed thru medication & lifestyle changes.

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16

Peritonsillar Abscess

A peritonsillar abscess is a relatively common bacterial infection that usually begins as a complication to untreated strep throat or tonsillitis and produces a collection of pus. Use of antibiotics in the treatment o...

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17

Food Allergy Basics

Food allergies are overblown responses by the immune system to foods that aren't typically harmful - like eggs and peanuts. Continue reading and learn more about food allergies, and how to prevent or treat sever...

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18

Sjogren's Syndrome

In a healthy body, the immune system attacks foreign bacteria or invaders. Sometimes the immune system starts attacking your own body, because it thinks foreign material is present. If this happens, it cause...

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19

Hypothyroidism

The thyroid gland is an important endocrine gland that controls the body's metabolism. It is a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck just below the Adam's apple. The thyroid gland produces th...

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20

Lung Cancer Overview

Learn the types of lung cancer, and read information about lung cancer symptoms, causes and treatments. Continue reading!

Read more »

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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