Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx, or voice boxthe part of the windpipe containing your vocal cords. To create speech, the vocal cords open and close. When they become swollen, the sounds become distorted or faint, or the ability to produce any sound may be lost.
Symptoms of Laryngitis
- Hoarseness (ranging from mild to severe loss of voice) and increasing difficulty in producing normal sound
- Scratchy or itchy throat, sometimes a sore throat, and a dry cough
- Swollen vocal folds
- A feeling that something stuck in the throat
- A frequent need to clear the throat
- Fever (occasionally)
- Pain when speaking or swallowing
- Physical discomfort
- Swollen neck glands
- Runny nose
- Difficulty breathing (rare)
What Causes Laryngitis?
Acute laryngitis usually is caused by an infection, mainly viral and very occasionally bacterial. The other principal cause is overusing your voice. As the noise around you increases, you tend to shout over it and thus alter the quality of your voice. In addition, more people these days work in jobs requiring heavy telephone use. Trying to sound authoritative, people sometimes unconsciously pitch their voices lower than is really comfortable. Your vocal cords react just like any other tissue strained by overusethey resist, causing inflammation that results in hoarseness. Teachers, singers, public speakers, and others who use their voices a great deal or must speak loudly are at risk.
The causes of chronic laryngitis include smoking; exposure to fumes, chemicals, dust, or other irritants; mouth breathing; frequent upper respiratory problems such as allergies, sinusitis, or bronchitis; and heartburn, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
What If You Do Nothing?
Acute viral laryngitis is rarely serious and usually clears up within a few days. Persistent hoarseness, therefore, is a sign that something else may be the problem—a more serious bacterial infection, small benign growths (known as nodes or polyps) on your vocal cords, or a malignancy.
Home Remedies for Laryngitis
- Rest the voice. If you are hoarse or if your voice is squeaky, it’s important to rest your vocal cords. This means that for two or three days you should speak only when it is absolutely necessary.
- Don’t whisper. That puts more pressure on your vocal cords than speaking softly. Instead, speak in a soft, breathy voice. Also, try not to clear your throat—swallow a few times or cough gently.
- Keep your vocal cords well lubricated. First, increase your fluid intake—drink at least 8 to 10 glasses of water daily, which will help thin the mucus around the vocal cords. In addition, increase the humidity in your surroundings to 40 to 50 percent relative humidity. (If you use a humidifier or vaporizer, be sure to clean the device and any filters regularly). Avoid alcohol and cigarettes, which dry out the vocal cords. A glycerin throat lozenge may be helpful, but avoid cold pills containing decongestants or antihistamines, which may dry out your throat.
Here are some of the rules professional entertainers follow to protect their voices.
- Be aware of voice pitch. Don’t pitch your voice unnaturally high or low.
- Avoid smoking. It dries the throat and irritates the vocal cords.
- Avoid talking over background noise. Wait until the hubbub subsides so you don’t have to raise your voice unnecessarily.
- Reduce alcohol intake and caffeine, because they dehydrate and irritate the throat.
- Get some phone support. If you have to be on the telephone for long periods, a phone rest or a headset may lessen the strain on muscles in your face, throat, and neck, thus relieving some vocal cord tension. Try to rest your voice between telephone calls.
- Drink plenty of water.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
If hoarseness, voice change, or discomfort lasts more than two weeks (and you don’t have a cold or allergy), check with your doctor—a bacterial infection could be present. Your doctor may also refer you to an otolaryngologist, a throat specialist who may prescribe medication.
For children: Call a doctor immediately if hoarseness is accompanied by difficulty swallowing or breathing, gasping for air, drooling, and/or high fever. This may signal a serious bacterial infection—epiglottitis—that requires prompt medical attention.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Using a special mirror, your doctor can examine the larynx to check for redness, inflammation, possible bleeding, and other signs of laryngitis. If a bacterial infection is diagnosed, the physician may prescribe a course of antibiotics. For severe or chronic hoarseness, your doctor may refer you to a throat specialist to determine if nodes or polyps or other lesions are causing the trouble.
Many chronic voice problems can be solved with the help of a speech-language therapist. Such therapists are usually certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and licensed by the state; your throat specialist should be able to refer you to one.
When all other measures fail, surgical treatment for polyps may be an option.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media