Laryngitis

Definition
Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx generally associated with hoarseness or loss of voice.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The voice box (larynx) is located at the top of the airway to the lungs (windpipe, trachea) and contains the vocal cords. When the vocal cords become inflamed or infected, they swell. This can cause hoarseness, and may occasionally cause obstruction of the airway.

The most common form of laryngitis is an infectious illness usually caused by a virus which results in hoarseness. It may also be part of a bacterial infection or part of a common cold, bronchitis, flu, or pneumonia.

Laryngitis often follows or occurs during an upper respiratory infection and is a self-limiting condition (it goes away by itself). Common laryngitis is not normally associated with any breathing difficulty (respiratory distress).

Several forms of laryngitis occur in children and can lead to significant or fatal respiratory obstruction. These are croup and epiglottitis (discussed under their respective headings).

Other causes of laryngitis include allergies and trauma.

Symptoms

     
  • Recent or current upper respiratory infection  
  • Hoarseness  
  • Fever  
  • Swollen lymph nodes or glands in the neck

Signs and tests

Physical examination is usually all that is necessary for the patient with self-limiting hoarseness associated with a respiratory tract infection.

Patients (particularly smokers) with persistent hoarseness will need to see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) for tests of the throat and upper airway.

Treatment

Since most common laryngitis is viral, treatment with antibiotics is generally not indicated. Your health care provider will make this decision.

Voice rest helps both the voice and to reduce inflammation of the vocal cords. A humidifier may provide comfort for the scratchy feeling sometimes associated with laryngitis. Decongestants and pain killers may relieve symptoms of an accompanying upper respiratory infection.

Expectations (prognosis)
Full recovery is expected in uncomplicated laryngitis.

Complications
On rare occasions, severe respiratory distress requiring medical intervention may develop.

Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if there is difficulty in breathing, swallowing, or if drooling is present in a small child.

Call your health care provider if hoarseness is present in a child less than 3 months old.

Call your health care provider if hoarseness has lasted for more than 1 week in a child or 2 weeks in an adult.

Prevention

Avoidance of upper respiratory infections during cold and flu season may help. Using good hygienic practices such as hand washing, avoiding people with infectious respiratory illnesses, and avoiding crowded, close quarters (theaters and so on) may also help.

Smoking cessation can help prevent malignancies of the head and neck, and of the lungs, which may lead to laryngitis.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 5, 2012
by Potos A. Aagen, M.D.

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