Laryngitis

What Is Laryngitis?

Laryngitis is inflammation of the voice box (larynx). This organ sits in your upper neck just past the back of your throat. Swelling of the vocal cords muffles sound, and you are hoarse. When you try to talk, all that comes out is a whisper or squeak.

Swelling of the voice box can be triggered by an infection, such as a cold, the flu, or bronchitis. Or the problem could be something as simple as overuse.

Laryngitis usually isn’t a serious problem. With proper treatment, acute (short-lived) laryngitis should go away in no more than 3 weeks. But sometimes, laryngitis lasts longer and becomes chronic. But there are ways to help yourself feel better.

Laryngitis Symptoms

Laryngitis is often related to another illness, such as a cold, the flu, or bronchitis. Symptoms in children and adults are usually similar. Laryngitis symptoms include:

Laryngitis Causes

The most common cause of acute laryngitis is a viral infection, like an upper respiratory infection. You're more likely to get laryngitis if you’re prone to:

  • Colds
  • The flu
  • Bronchitis

Other causes of acute and chronic laryngitis are:

  • Smoking or vaping
  • Overuse or misuse of the voice, such as screaming, loud cheering, singing; infants or children may get laryngitis from constant crying or changing their voice to mimic animals or cartoon characters
  • Allergies
  • Throat irritation caused by inhaled medications, like asthma inhalers
  • A fungal infection, such as thrush
  • An injury, such as a hit to the throat
  • Inhalation of chemical fumes
  • Sinus disease

Acid reflux can also play a role. Strong acids can travel up from the stomach into your throat and get all the way to your larynx. This can irritate it and make you lose your voice.

Rarely, laryngitis may be caused by infection by bacteria.

Some health conditions, including certain cancers, can also make you more likely to get laryngitis.

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Laryngitis Diagnosis

Because viral laryngitis usually goes away within a couple of weeks, you probably don’t need to see a doctor. If you end up needing to make a visit, a doctor is likely to do the following:

  • Examine your throat and take what’s called a culture. The culture will likely grow out the bacteria or virus that is causing the laryngitis.
  • Use an endoscope, a narrow tube, equipped with a camera. This is called a laryngoscopy. They thread it into your throat through your nose or mouth. You’re given something to numb you so you won’t feel any pain. This way, the doctor can get a close-up look at your vocal cords.
  • If you have a suspicious lump or nodule in your throat or voice box area, your doctor may recommend taking a sample of tissue for examination (biopsy).

The doctor may also do a skin allergy test or an X-ray to rule out other issues.

Laryngitis Treatments

The best treatment is to rest your voice. Without the stress of everyday use, it will often recover on its own.

Medical treatments

  • Corticosteroids. If your need to speak clearly is urgent, a doctor may prescribe corticosteroids. This is a class of man-made drugs that mimic hormones, such as cortisol, that your body makes naturally. They reduce swelling.
  • Antibiotics. If you have a bacterial infection, you may be given antibiotics. But laryngitis is very rarely caused by bacteria. And antibiotics will not help with viral laryngitis.
  • Pain medications. If you’re in pain, you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Always follow the instructions about how often and how much to take.
  • Voice therapy. A speech-language therapist teaches you how to care for your voice and reduce behaviors that strain it.

Home care

You can try a number of home remedies to aid in your healing:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Early on, swallowing may be painful, but the more you’re hydrated, the better. But avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Use humidifiers and menthol inhalers. Moisture is your friend, and menthol can be soothing.
  • Gargle with warm salt water. The salinity not only soothes the area, but also reduces swelling.
  • You may also suck on throat lozenges, which often contain herbs such as eucalyptus and mint, known for calming sore throats.
  • Avoid dry, smoky, or dusty rooms.
  • Stay away from decongestants. They dry you out when your throat wants moisture.
  • Don’t whisper. That actually puts more strain on your vocal cords.

Certain herbs -- such as licorice, marshmallow, and slippery elm -- have reputations as throat pain relievers, but they interact with some medications. Talk to your doctor before taking them.

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Laryngitis Complications

Laryngitis can be very serious in children. Watch for fever and call a doctor if your child is:

  • Younger than 3 months old and has a temperature of 100 F or higher, or is older than 3 months and has a fever of 102 F or higher
  • Having trouble swallowing or breathing, is making high-pitched sounds when inhaling, or is drooling more than usual

In kids, it may lead to croup, a narrowing of the airways, or epiglottitis, an inflammation of the flap at the top of the larynx. This condition can be life-threatening, so get emergency treatment if you or a child in your care has had laryngitis and starts gasping or having any trouble breathing.

Laryngitis in adults is not serious, but you should see a doctor if you’ve been hoarse for more than 2 weeks, are coughing up blood, have a temperature above 103 F, or are having trouble breathing.

Laryngitis Prevention

Follow these steps to keep your voice healthy and prevent dryness and irritation that can lead to laryngitis.

  • Don’t drink coffee, soda, or other products that have caffeine, which dries out the throat.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water during the day.
  • Don’t smoke, and stay away from secondhand smoke. Smoking is bad for your health in general, but it also irritates the vocal cords.
  • Don’t clear your throat. Ahem, doing so creates abnormal vibrations that trigger irritation and swelling of the vocal cords.
  • Wash your hands often and properly, especially if you’ve been around someone who is sick.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on August 17, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

National Health Service (U.K.): “Laryngitis.”

Johns Hopkins Greater Baltimore Medical Center: “Voice Education and Treatment: Anatomy and Physiology.”

University of Maryland Medical Center: “Laryngitis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Diseases and Conditions: Laryngitis,” “Epiglottitis.”

Health Service Executive (Ireland): “Swollen Glands.”

The British Voice Association: “Reflux and Your Voice.”

Reveiz, L. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, published online, 2015.

Rutgers University-Camden: “Sore Throat.”

Health Direct (Australia): “Laryngitis.”

British Journal of Anaesthesia: “Adult epiglottitis: an under‐recognized, life‐threatening condition.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Corticosteroids.”

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: “Hoarseness.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Laryngitis.”

Merck Manual Professional Version: “Laryngitis.”

KidsHealth: “Chronic Hoarseness.”

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