Epiglottitis is a medical emergency that may result in death if not treated quickly. The epiglottis is a flap of tissue at the base of the tongue that keeps food from going into the trachea, or windpipe, during swallowing. When it gets infected and inflamed, it can obstruct, or close off, the windpipe, which may be fatal unless promptly treated.
Respiratory infection, environmental exposure, or trauma may result in inflammation and infection of other structures around the throat. This infection and inflammation may spread to the epiglottis as well as other upper airway structures. Epiglottitis usually begins as an inflammation and swelling between the base of the tongue and the epiglottis. With continued inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, complete blockage of the airway may occur, leading to suffocation and death. Even a little narrowing of the windpipe can dramatically increase the resistance of an airway, making breathing much more difficult.
Autopsies of people with epiglottitis have shown distortion of the epiglottis and its associated structures, including the formation of abscesses (pockets of infection). For unknown reasons, adults with epiglottic involvement are more likely than children to develop epiglottic abscesses.
Epiglottitis was first described in the 18th century but was first accurately defined by Le Mierre in 1936. In fact, although George Washington's death in 1796 was attributed by some to quinsy (today we call it peritonsillar abscess), which is a pocket of pus behind the tonsils, it could have actually been due to epiglottitis.
In the past, epiglottitis was more common in children than in adults. This difference was believed to be because of the smaller diameter of children's epiglottic opening when compared to adults. Epiglottitis in the very young (younger than 1 year of age) is unusual.
In the past, Haemophilus influenzae type b (or Hib) was the most common organism related to epiglottitis. Since 1985, with the widespread vaccination against Hib, the overall incidence of the disease among children has dropped dramatically.
A conservative estimate of the incidence of epiglottitis is 1 case per 100,000 people in the U.S. each year.