Laryngitis is inflammation (-itis) of the larynx (-laryn). The larynx is also known as the ‘voice box’ because it contains the vocal cords, which are necessary for speech. Located in the throat above the trachea, or windpipe, the vocal cords vibrate and create sounds when air, traveling from the lungs and up through the trachea, passes over them.
Symptoms & Causes
When the larynx is inflamed and swollen, the abilities to talk and sing are affected. Speech may be hoarse, or not possible at all. The throat may feel sore and itchy, as if it needs to be cleared. Fever may also occur.
These symptoms typically appear within hours or days of developing a cold or upper respiratory infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Colds, which are caused by viruses, are the most common cause of laryngitis. Other viral causes include measles. Although rare, bacterial infections, such as diphtheria, can also cause laryngitis.
Certain activities may strain the vocal cords to cause inflammation and lead to laryngitis. Examples of these types of activities include yelling at a sporting event or concert and working as a professional singer.
When laryngitis persists for three or more weeks, it is considered chronic. Causes of chronic laryngitis include behavioral and psychological conditions such as bulimia, alcohol abuse and smoking. Health conditions including gastroesophageal reflux disease (acid reflux) and sinusitis may also lead to laryngitis. All of the above conditions cause chemicals to come in repeated contact with the vocal cords, which damages the cords over time.
Diagnosis & Tests
Laryngitis is diagnosed through a physical examination. A physician will listen to the sound of the voice, and in a technique called laryngoscopy, he will use a small mirror and a light to peer at the back of throat. Redness and swelling are typically visible.
A newer, slightly more invasive procedure called endoscopy is sometimes used to make a diagnosis. Endoscopy allows the physician to view the vocal cords in motion. In this procedure, a doctor uses a skinny, bendable tube called an endoscope that is equipped with a mini camera and light at its end. The physician inserts the endoscope in the nose or mouth and it extends into the throat.
For individuals with chronic laryngitis, testing for cancer may be recommended.
Treatment & Medications
Laryngitis is not usually serious. Resting the vocal cords and avoiding irritants can often resolve symptoms. In some cases, cough suppressants or antibiotics (if the infection is bacterial) may be prescribed. Anti-inflammatory drugs called corticosteroids may be warranted if there is an urgent need to be able to speak, such as for work.
Corticosteroids may also be described for infants with laryngitis related to croup, a condition that causes coughing and difficulty breathing.
When laryngitis is caused by other conditions, however, often the best way to treat it is to treat the other conditions. For example, taking medication for acid reflux can prevent stomach chemicals from coming into contact with the throat.
Alternative & At-home Therapies
Staying hydrated, and avoiding harsh fluids like alcohol and caffeine, will also promote healing. In addition to drinking fluids, sore-throat lozenges, salt water and gum, all of which increase the production of saliva, can relieve itchiness in the throat.
Breathing moist air from a humidifier or even a hot shower can also relieve symptoms.
Things to avoid are any activities that dry out the nose, mouth and throat. For example, decongestants, like those found in over-the-counter products taken for a runny nose, can further aggravate the vocal cords.
According to the Mayo Clinic, whispering can make symptoms worse as it causes more strain on vocal cords than speaking normally. Still, although individuals are encouraged to talk in a normal voice, both talking and singing should be kept to a minimum to give the vocal cords time to heal.