What Is Laryngitis?

Laryngitis is inflammation of the larynx or voice box, the structure in the throat containing the vocal cords. It occurs in two forms: acute, which lasts only a few days; and chronic, which persists over a period of weeks or months.

The most common symptom of either form of laryngitis is hoarseness that may, within several days, progress to partial or total loss of the voice. Fever, sore throat and swallowing difficulty may occur as well.

Children face the added risk of encountering breathing difficulty, because the opening of a child’s larynx is narrow to begin with, and inflammation restricts the air passages even further. Laryngitis may occur as an isolated local infection of the larynx or as part of another, more serious underlying disorder, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. In most cases, however, it is a minor ailment and clears up on its own within a few days or weeks. It may also result from prolonged straining of the voice.

What Causes Laryngitis?

  • Acute laryngitis is most often due to a viral infection, including the common cold and influenza. Bacterial infections (such as tonsillitis, bronchitis and pneumonia) less commonly cause laryngitis.
  • Acute laryngitis may result from excessive strain on the vocal cords, as occurs with activities such as yelling, cheering, singing or public speaking.
  • Postnasal drip, allergies, or inhalation of smoke, fumes, caustic chemicals or acid from the stomach can irritate the larynx and cause inflammation.
  • Chronic laryngitis may be caused by excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, or constant exposure to dust or chemical irritants like paint remover.
  • Long-term upper respiratory tract disorders such as sinusitis, bronchitis, nasal polyps and allergies can cause chronic laryngitis.
  • Repeated episodes of acute laryngitis may eventually lead to chronic laryngitis.
  • Laryngitis due to gastroesophageal reflux, or heartburn, a common cause of chronic laryngitis in adults, may occur without the sensation of heartburn.

Symptoms of Laryngitis

  • Hoarseness; sore, scratchy throat; weak or absent voice
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat or constant desire to clear the throat
  • Dry cough; possibly fever
  • Runny nose; achiness; tiredness

Prevention

  • Prompt treatment for upper respiratory infections is important.
  • Smokers should abstain from smoking.
  • Straining the voice should be avoided.

Diagnosis of Laryngitis

  • Physical examination and patient history
  • Laryngoscopy (viewing the larynx with a mirror or a flexible, lighted scope)
  • Throat culture (if bacterial infection is suspected)

How to Treat Laryngitis

  • Avoid speaking during recovery; write notes instead. Be aware that whispering puts greater strain on the vocal cords than normal speaking. Avoid clearing your throat; cough gently instead.
  • Inhale steam from a bowl of hot water.
  • Drink plenty of liquids, especially warm, soothing nonalcoholic drinks, to stay hydrated.
  • Try a cool-mist humidifier; increased moisture in the air may ease a sore throat. Avoid air-conditioning.
  • Nonprescription pain relievers and throat lozenges can ease discomfort.
  • Smokers should avoid cigarettes—at the very least until symptoms have subsided.
  • If laryngitis is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics will be prescribed.
  • Speech therapists may be able to assist voice overusers with chronic laryngitis.
  • The underlying cause of chronic laryngitis must be diagnosed and treated.

When to Call a Doctor

  • If you have the symptoms of laryngitis for more than two weeks despite self-care measures, see a doctor.
  • Chronic hoarseness warrants a doctor’s attention; it may be an early symptom of laryngeal cancer.
  • Call a doctor if symptoms appear in a child who is three months old or younger.

Sources:

Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 30 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 26 Jan 2015