What Is Laryngitis?

Learn About Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Woman suffering from sore throat. France
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Laryngitis is inflammation of your larynx -- also called your voice box -- from irritation, overuse, or infection. About 2 inches in length and located at the top of your windpipe (airway), your larynx contains your vocal cords and plays a role when you talk, breathe, or swallow.

Composed of two folds of mucous membrane wrapped around cartilage and muscle, your vocal cords normally form sounds by smoothly opening and closing as well as vibrating.

Inflammation or irritation from laryngitis causes your vocal cords to swell and distort the sounds that air carries over them – making your voice sound hoarse. If the swelling is severe, you may not be able to make your voice heard at all, a condition called aphonia.

Most often due to vocal strain or a viral infection, laryngitis isn’t usually serious. However, hoarseness that doesn’t go away could be a symptom of a more serious disease or disorder and should be reported to your doctor.

What Causes Laryngitis?

Laryngitis that lasts less than a few weeks (acute laryngitis) is often associated with an upper respiratory infection due to a virus. (Laryngitis from bacterial infection is rare.)

Long-term (chronic) laryngitis, lasting longer than 3 weeks, can have numerous other causes, such as:

  • Ingesting caustic materials
  • Chronic sinusitis with postnasal drip
  • Chronic alcohol use
  • Tuberculosis

What Are the Symptoms of Laryngitis?

Hoarseness is the most common symptom. Others include:

  • Lowered voice
  • Feeling a constant need to clear your throat

If an infection is the cause, symptoms may also include:

  • Fever
  • Malaise (a generalized feeling of discomfort or illness)
  • Swollen lymph nodes

How Is Laryngitis Diagnosed?

Laryngitis usually gets better on its own. If you need to see your doctor about your symptoms, he or she will most likely base the diagnosis on them. If necessary, your doctor may also look at your larynx with a special mirror or an endoscope.

You’re more likely to undergo endoscopy if you’ve had laryngitis longer than a few weeks. Your doctor will want to view your larynx directly to check for other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a tumor or tuberculosis infection.

“What treatment am I likely to receive?”

One of the best ways to treat laryngitis, and certainly the simplest, is not talking. At all. Contrary to popular belief, whispering does not rest your voice. In fact, it can actually agitate your vocal cords and make your hoarseness worse.

The following treatments may also help relieve your laryngitis symptoms:

What About Antibiotics? As you may know, antibiotics are only effective against infections caused by bacteria. Since almost all infections with laryngitis are caused by viruses, it makes sense that your doctor wouldn’t prescribe an antibiotic for you, at least at first. If you don’t start feeling better within a reasonable time, however, you may have one of the rare cases where bacteria are the cause, and taking an antibiotic may be indicated.

There’s another reason why doctors are more cautious about prescribing antibiotics these days: Overuse of antibiotics has contributed to the evolution of so-called “super bugs” – bacteria that have become antibiotic resistant. Healthcare professionals are hoping to slow that trend by giving patients antibiotics only when they are clearly required.

Sources:

“Laryngitis.” Mayo Clinic.Org (2016).

“Laryngitis.” U.S. National Library of Medicine-MedlinePlus (2014). 

“Laryngitis.”  MerckManuals.Com (2016).  

“Laryngitis.” KidsHealth.Org (2016).

Reveiz L, Cardona AF. “Antibiotics for acute laryngitis in adults.”  Cochrane Clinical Answers (2015).

Zalvan CH, Jones J. “Etiology and management of hoarseness.” UpToDate.Com (2008).

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