What Is Laryngitis?
Laryngitis is inflammation of your voice box (larynx). This organ sits in your upper neck, just past the back of your throat. Swelling of your vocal cords muffles sound, and you get hoarse. When you try to talk, all that may come out is a whisper or squeak.
Laryngitis usually isn’t a serious problem. With the right treatment, it should go away in no more than 3 weeks. But sometimes, it lasts longer and becomes chronic. Still, there are ways to help yourself feel better.
When you have laryngitis, you might feel a tickling in the back of your throat that makes you want to cough. Your coughs will likely be dry, meaning that they don’t produce mucus or phlegm. You may make a hoarse, barking sound when you cough.
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:
Most of the time, laryngitis is short-lived or acute. It goes away once the condition that's causing it improves. The most common cause of acute laryngitis is a viral infection, such as an upper respiratory infection.
Conditions that can cause laryngitis include:
When laryngitis lasts longer than 3 weeks, it's considered chronic. Most often, it happens when you're exposed to something that irritates your larynx for a longer period.
Things that can cause either chronic or acute laryngitis include:
Rarely, chronic laryngitis is caused by infection by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Some health conditions, including certain cancers, can also make you more likely to get laryngitis.
Laryngitis and COVID-19
COVID-19 itself doesn’t give you laryngitis, but its symptoms could. COVID-19 often makes you cough a lot, which may inflame your voice box and make your vocal cords stiff and swollen.
Infections such as COVID-19 can also damage your vagus nerve, which starts in your brain and runs all the way down into your stomach. If the vagus nerve isn't working like it should, your vocal cords won’t, either.
Steroids, which are often prescribed to treat COVID-19, also could lead to laryngitis. That’s because the side effects of these drugs may include acid reflux and thrush infections in the back of your throat.
If you have a very serious case of COVID-19, you could be put on a ventilator (a machine that breathes for you). Having a tube down your throat can irritate your vocal cords and lead to laryngitis.
Laryngitis Risk Factors
Voice strain puts you at risk for laryngitis. This may happen if you use your voice more than usual, such as singing along at a concert or cheering at a football game. Infants and children can get laryngitis from constant crying or changing their voices, perhaps to mimic animals or cartoon characters.
You’re more likely to get laryngitis if you have an infection that affects your breathing, such as a cold, bronchitis, or sinusitis. Allergies and asthma also make you more prone to it, especially if you use a steroid inhaler.
Working around chemicals, smoking or vaping, or being around secondhand smoke can raise your risk. So can being sensitive to chemicals, such as the ones used to scent shampoos and laundry detergents.
Other things that raise your chances of laryngitis include:
- Acid reflux
- Alcohol misuse
- A weakened immune system
When to See a Doctor
Most of the time, laryngitis gets better without treatment. But if you’re in serious pain or your symptoms don’t clear up after 2 weeks, it’s time to see your doctor or pediatrician. They can look for and treat any condition that may be causing your laryngitis, such as heartburn. Or they could refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
Get emergency medical care if you:
- Have a hard time breathing
- Have had a fever for a long time
- Are coughing up blood
- Have pain that's gotten worse over a period of weeks
Seek emergency help for your child if they:
- Have trouble breathing or swallowing
- Are younger than 3 months and have a temperature of 100 F or higher, or are older than 3 months and have a fever of 102 F or higher
- Make noisy, high-pitched sounds when they breathe
- Drool more than usual
These can all be signs of a more serious condition.
If you visit a doctor for laryngitis symptoms, they're likely to:
- Examine your throat and take what’s called a culture. This can show them which bacteria or virus may be causing your 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’ll get medicine 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.
Is laryngitis contagious?
Most cases of laryngitis stem from an upper respiratory infection. If a respiratory virus is causing your laryngitis, you could easily spread the virus to others (though they won't necessarily get laryngitis as a result). For instance, each time you cough, you release tiny droplets containing the virus into the air. Other people could breathe in these germs and get sick.
If there’s another reason for your laryngitis, such as allergies or excessive screaming at a football match, you won’t be contagious.
Should you stay home with laryngitis?
If you know an infection is the reason for your laryngitis, stay home instead of going to work or school if you can. This will reduce the chances that you’ll infect others and give you more time to rest.
The best treatment for laryngitis depends on what's causing it. Acute laryngitis usually goes away within a couple of weeks. Often, you can improve your symptoms with things you can do yourself at home, like resting your voice.
For chronic laryngitis, treatments will target whatever is causing it, whether that's smoking or acid reflux.
- 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 won't 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.
Laryngitis home remedies
You can try several home remedies to help you heal:
- Rest your voice. Without the stress of everyday use, your voice will often recover on its own.
- If you have to speak in front of others, use a microphone.
- Avoid singing.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Early on, swallowing may be painful, but the more you’re hydrated, the better. However, avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Use humidifiers and menthol inhalers. Moisture is your friend, and menthol can be soothing.
- Take a hot shower, or stand over a bowl of hot water, and inhale the steam.
- 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 root, and slippery elm—have reputations as throat pain relievers, but they interact with some medications. Talk to your doctor before taking them.
Laryngitis can be very serious in children. 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.
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 or vape; cut back if you have trouble stopping. Also, stay away from secondhand smoke.
- 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.
- Avoid overusing alcohol.
- Stay up to date with flu shots and any other vaccines your doctor recommends.
- Avoid close contact with people who have colds, flu, or other respiratory infections.
- Use pillows or elevate your bed to raise your head while you sleep. This helps protect against acid reflux.
- Avoid cheering or singing at high volumes for long periods.
You get laryngitis when your voice box becomes inflamed. It's usually not serious and gets better on its own. But if it lasts more than a couple of weeks or causes serious symptoms, see your doctor.
What is the fastest way to cure laryngitis?
For most people with acute laryngitis, resting the voice is the best way to heal it. Try to avoid speaking at all until you feel better. It's especially important to avoid whispering or clearing your throat, both of which can be irritating.
Do I need antibiotics for laryngitis?
Even if your doctor thinks your sore throat and hoarse voice are due to a bacterial infection, they probably won’t prescribe antibiotics. That’s because it’s not clear how much these drugs can actually help. Tests may or may not detect bacteria in your throat, a virus is still usually the cause of laryngitis. You’re better off taking care of yourself and letting the illness run its course.