You try to talk, but all you can manage is a whisper or a squeak. Why is this happening? You probably have laryngitis. Laryngitis is an inflammation of your larynx or voice box. Your larynx is located in the upper neck, just a bit beyond the back of your throat. Your vocal cords are inside your larynx.
Normally, these two folds of tissue can open, close, and vibrate smoothly, forming sounds. But when your larynx is inflamed, the swelling distorts the sound, and you become hoarse or, in some cases, your voice becomes barely audible.
In this article, we will explain the symptoms of laryngitis, its causes, and treatment options.
Symptoms of Laryngitis
Laryngitis is most often linked to another illness such as a cold, flu, or bronchitis. Sometimes it’s merely the result of straining your vocal cords by yelling or singing.
The most common symptoms of laryngitis are:
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
- Tickling sensation in your throat
- Constant urge to clear your throat
- Dry cough
- Trouble speaking
- Hoarseness, weakened voice or loss of voice
- Low-grade fever
What Causes Laryngitis?
There are two forms of laryngitis – acute and chronic – depending on the duration and causes.
Most cases of laryngitis are short-lived or acute, and symptoms improve when the underlying cause gets better.
Acute laryngitis is usually caused by:
- Overusing your vocal cords
- Drinking too much or smoking too much
- Spending time in an environment with dry air
- Viral infections such as a cold or the flu
- Bacterial infection – although less common
If symptoms last longer than three weeks, you have chronic laryngitis. Chronic laryngitis can also be caused by straining your vocal cords, like in the case of singers.
Other causes for chronic laryngitis include:
- Excessive alcohol use
- Long-term exposure to irritants such as chemical fumes
- Frequent sinus infections
- Acid reflux – GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Fungal infections
- Injury to the throat
When to See a Doctor
Acute laryngitis in adults is usually not serious. The symptoms will subside on their own in about two weeks, or you can speed up the recovery with home remedies for lost voice. However, if your symptoms persist, or they appear to be worsening, you should see a doctor because your laryngitis could be indicative of a more severe underlying issue.
Symptoms that should be cause for concern include:
- Fever that doesn’t subside with treatment
- Debilitating pain in the throat
- Trouble swallowing
- Trouble breathing
- Coughing up blood
Health conditions such as cancer and ulcers, cysts or nodules on the vocal cords can also lead to symptoms that resemble laryngitis.
Your doctor will examine your throat and take a culture to see if your laryngitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. They will also use an endoscope, which is a narrow tube with a camera, to take a closer look at your larynx. The endoscope will reach your throat through your nose or mouth, but you won’t feel any pain because you will be given something to numb you. In some cases, they may also order allergy tests or X-rays. If they discover a suspicious mass, they may request a biopsy to rule out cancer. During a biopsy, a small piece of tissue from the mass is removed and examined in a lab.
Laryngitis can lead to more severe complications in children, so if you have or you’re currently caring for a child, it’s better to pay close attention to the symptoms and take them to see a doctor. If the child has a temperature of 100 F or higher, has trouble breathing or swallowing, is drooling more than usual, or making high-pitched noise when inhaling, you should call your doctor.
These symptoms may be indicative of epiglottitis – an inflammation of the epiglottis, which is a small cartilage on top of the larynx. Epiglottis predominantly affects kids between the ages of 2 and 6 (but children of all ages and adults can have it as well) and can be a life-threatening condition.
As we mentioned before, if you have acute laryngitis that’s caused by voice strain, you just need to rest your voice for a few days, and it should get better on its own. Don’t talk loudly, but don’t whisper either because both can add strain to the vocal cords. It’s better to avoid talking, and if you do have to talk, do it for short periods of time as best as you can. You can also use a humidifier to increase the level of moisture in the air, and you should keep your throat from getting dry by drinking water and sucking on lozenges.
If you need to speed up recovery because you have to give a speech that requires you to speak clearly, your doctor might be able to help you by prescribing corticosteroids – a type of drug that helps reduce inflammation.
If your laryngitis is caused by a viral infection like a cold or the flu, you’ll want to follow the typical guidelines: rest, stay warm, drink warm tea, make sure you eat well and stay hydrated. It should get better in about a week. Note that decongestants, although they provide relief for a stuffy nose, can also dry the throat, making your laryngitis worse. Same as with voice strain, you should use lozenges with soothing ingredients. Additionally, you can gargle with a solution made of warm water, salt, and baking soda that will help reduce inflammation.
Although it’s rarer, your laryngitis could be the result of a bacterial infection, in which case your doctor will prescribe antibiotics that you should take according to their recommendation. They will be able to determine what specific bacteria caused your symptoms through the culture we mentioned earlier.
For chronic laryngitis, since it might be due to another, more serious underlying condition, the treatment will vary depending on what the test results show.
Note that some risk factors can lead to more frequent episodes of acute laryngitis. If you smoke or spend a lot of time around smokers, this will irritate your larynx and also make you more vulnerable to infections. During winter, when the air is particularly dry, you’ll also be more likely to experience symptoms of laryngitis.