Your Larynx: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 11, 2022
5 min read

You may know your larynx as your voice box. It’s the part of your throat that allows you to speak and make sounds. Your larynx does more than that, though. It plays a key role in enabling and protecting your respiratory system.

The larynx is a hollow tube, about 2 inches long, that connects the back of the throat to the windpipe, or trachea. Larynx function includes three jobs:

  • Aid in breathing
  • Create vocal sounds
  • Prevent food and particles from entering your respiratory system

Because of the larynx’s role in speaking and making vocal sounds, it’s sometimes referred to as the voice box.

Within your throat are two muscular tubes: your esophagus and your trachea. The esophagus is part of your digestive system, and connects your throat, or pharynx, to your stomach. The trachea is part of your respiratory system, which leads to your lungs. The larynx sits between the throat and the trachea somewhere between the fourth and sixth cervical vertebrae.

Larynx structure includes four primary parts:

  • Epiglottis. The epiglottis is a flap of skin that covers your larynx. It closes when you swallow to keep food, liquids, and particles out of your trachea and lungs.
  • Thyroid cartilage. The thyroid cartilage is a piece of cartilage at the front of your throat, sometimes referred to as the Adam’s apple.
  • Vestibular folds. Also called false vocal cords, they also keep food out of your respiratory system by closing when you swallow.
  • Vocal cords. Your vocal cords create sound and speech by opening and closing as air passes through them.

Your larynx is made of multiple materials within your body.

Cartilage. Cartilage is a strong, flexible tissue that your body uses in many ways. It cushions bones and joints to absorb shock, it lubricates the joints to reduce friction, connects tissue and bones together and acts as a supporting structure. It’s the main tissue within your trachea, as well as in your ears and your nose.

Ligaments. Ligaments are another type of connective tissue. Within your larynx, ligaments connect the cartilage together and keep the larynx connected to the proper structures within your throat.

Membranes. Membranes are thin sheets of tissue. They have multiple roles within your body, including to line or cover areas of the body or to act as connective tissue. Within the larynx, the membranes hold cartilage together.

Muscle. While cartilage is responsible for the structure of the larynx and the ligaments and membranes hold everything in place, the muscles of the larynx are what allow the larynx to perform its jobs. This includes activating the epiglottis and vestibular folds when swallowing, helping you breathe, and working the vocal cords.

Multiple conditions can potentially affect the larynx.

Laryngeal cancer. Laryngeal cancer is the result of cancer cells growing within the tissue of the larynx. Common symptoms of laryngeal cancer include:

  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Lump in the throat or neck
  • Persistent cough
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Voice changes or hoarseness

Frequent use of tobacco or alcohol increases your risk of laryngeal cancer. Your doctor may diagnose laryngeal cancer with a physical exam, biopsy, and/or imaging scan. After diagnosis, your doctor will check to see if the cancer has spread, or metastasized, to other areas of your body.

Laryngeal cancer is divided into five stages, from stage 0 to stage IV. Stage 0 is the discovery of abnormal cells, while stage IV is cancer that has metastasized. The type of treatment you receive will depend on the stage of cancer you have and where in your larynx the cancer is located. Treatment options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy.

Laryngitis. Laryngitis happens when your vocal cords become inflamed. Inflammation may be due to infection, irritation, or overuse. When your vocal cords swell, it can make your voice hoarse or cause you to lose your voice entirely. Other symptoms of laryngitis may include:

  • Dry cough
  • Dry throat
  • Sore or raw throat
  • Tickling sensation in the throat

Most of the time, laryngitis is caused by a viral infection and is short-lived, or acute. Sometimes, laryngitis may be long-term, or chronic.

Vocal cord dysfunction. Vocal cord dysfunction is a condition in which the vocal cords don’t open properly when you inhale. This can cause difficulty breathing and asthmalike symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Change in voice
  • Feeling like you’re choking or suffocating
  • Feeling like you frequently need to clear your throat
  • Frequent cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing sound when you inhale

Many different things can bring on an episode of vocal cord dysfunction. These include:

  • Anxiety and some other psychological conditions like stress and PTSD
  • Certain medications
  • Exercise
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Inhaling irritants like dust, smoke, or cleaning chemicals
  • Sinus infection
  • Cold or viral infection

Treatment for your vocal cord dysfunction will depend on what's causing the dysfunction in the first place.

Vocal cord lesions. Vocal growth lesions are growths that happen on the vocal cords. These may include:

  • Cysts, nodules, and polyps. These are benign bumps that often happen to people who speak or sing a lot.
  • Vocal papillomas. Vocal papillomas are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). If left untreated, they may affect speech and breathing.
  • Laryngeal cancers. Because cancers on the vocal cords may change the sound of the voice, they're often detected more quickly than cancers in other parts of the larynx.

Vocal cord lesions often cause a change in your voice, making it hoarse or change its pitch. It may also cause pain when you speak. Treatment may depend on what condition is causing the lesions, but often involves surgery to remove the lesions.

Vocal fold paralysis. Vocal fold paralysis is caused by an issue with the nerve impulses from your brain to your larynx. This causes you to be unable to control the movement of your vocal cords. Things that may cause issues with these nerve impulses include:

Symptoms of vocal fold paralysis may include:

  • Breathy voice
  • Coughing or choking when swallowing
  • Difficulty or inability to speak loudly
  • Frequently needing to clear the throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Loss of your gag reflex
  • Noisy breathing
  • Shortness of breath

Treatment depends on what is causing the symptoms, how severe your symptoms are, and how long you’ve had the symptoms. Treatment often includes vocal therapy and/or surgery.