What Is Laryngitis

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Overview

Laryngitis is a medical condition characterized by inflammation and irritation of the larynx, the throat organ consisting of cartilage, muscles, and vocal chords positioned at the top of the trachea (windpipe). The larynx plays a crucial role in producing sound; the vocal cords are responsible for opening and closing as air passes through, generating sound waves that produce speech. When the larynx becomes inflamed, the vocal cords may swell, disrupting their normal function and leading to changes in voice quality. This can result in hoarseness, throat irritation, difficulty speaking, or even temporary loss of voice.

Laryngitis can be categorized as either acute or chronic, depending on its duration. Acute laryngitis is typically caused by temporary viral infections and is not usually a cause for major concern. However, it's important to note that if hoarseness persists for an extended period, it could be an indication of an underlying medical condition that requires further attention.1

Causes of laryngitis

Laryngitis can have several causes, the most common being viral or bacterial infections.2 

  • Viral Infections: The most common cause of laryngitis is viral infections, particularly those associated with the common cold or flu. Viruses such as rhinovirus, adenovirus, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can infect the larynx, leading to inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords
  • Bacterial Infections: While less common than viral infections, bacterial infections can also cause laryngitis. Bacteria such as streptococcus can infect the throat and larynx, resulting in inflammation and irritation of the vocal cords
  • Respiratory Infections: Infections affecting the respiratory tract, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, can sometimes extend to the larynx and cause laryngitis

Signs and symptoms of laryngitis

The signs and symptoms of laryngitis can vary depending on the severity and underlying cause, but common symptoms include:

Hoarseness: Hoarseness is the most prevalent symptom of laryngitis. Your voice may sound raspy, strained, or weak. In some cases, the voice may become so faint that it is difficult to speak audibly.

Loss of voice: Laryngitis can lead to partial or complete loss of voice. You may find it challenging to produce any sound or speak in a normal volume.

Sore throat: The inflammation in the larynx can extend to the throat, resulting in a sore, scratchy, or irritated throat. Swallowing may also become uncomfortable.

Dry or tickle sensation: Some individuals with laryngitis experience a dry feeling or a constant tickle in their throat, causing the need to clear the throat frequently.

Mild cough: A dry, non-productive cough may accompany laryngitis. This cough is typically a result of irritation in the larynx and may not produce mucus or phlegm.

Swelling in the neck: In severe cases of laryngitis, you may notice swelling or tenderness in the neck area, particularly around the lymph nodes.

Management and treatment for laryngitis

The management and treatment of laryngitis typically involves self-care measures aimed at reducing inflammation, relieving symptoms, and promoting healing. Here are some common approaches:

Rest your voice: One of the most important steps in managing laryngitis is to give your vocal cords a rest. Avoid excessive talking, shouting, singing, or whispering, as these activities can strain the inflamed vocal cords further.3

Hydration: Stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, especially water. Adequate hydration helps maintain moisture in the throat and reduces irritation.

Humidify the air: Use a humidifier or vaporizer to add moisture to the air in your living environment. Moist air can help soothe the irritated larynx and relieve symptoms.

Avoid irritants: Minimize exposure to irritants that can worsen laryngitis, such as smoke, chemical fumes, and allergens. If you smoke, consider quitting, or at least avoid smoking during the healing process.

Over-the-counter pain relievers: Non-prescription pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help alleviate throat discomfort and reduce inflammation.

Throat lozenges and sprays: Sucking on throat lozenges or using throat sprays containing ingredients like menthol or benzocaine can provide temporary relief from throat soreness. These can help numb the area and reduce discomfort.

Warm saltwater gargles: Gargling with warm salt water can help soothe the throat and reduce inflammation. 

Antibiotics (if necessary): If laryngitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your healthcare professional may prescribe a course of antibiotics.

Treat underlying conditions: If laryngitis is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD) or allergies, treating and managing those conditions can help alleviate laryngitis symptoms.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of laryngitis typically involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and in some cases, additional tests. Here is an overview of the diagnostic process for laryngitis:

Medical history: Your healthcare provider will begin by asking about your symptoms, their duration, and any factors that may have triggered or worsened them. They will inquire about your occupation, vocal habits, recent illnesses, exposure to irritants, and any relevant medical conditions.

Physical examination: A physical examination of your throat, neck, and larynx will be performed. The healthcare provider may use a small handheld mirror or a laryngoscope - a flexible or rigid tube with a light and camera - to visualize the larynx and vocal cords. This allows them to assess any visible signs of inflammation, swelling, or other abnormalities. 4

Voice assessment: Your voice quality, pitch, and strength may be evaluated to determine the extent of vocal cord involvement. This can involve speaking, singing, or performing specific vocal exercises to assess the range and quality of your voice.

Risk factors

Overuse or strain of the vocal cords: Excessive strain or overuse of the vocal cords can contribute to laryngitis. People who use their voices extensively, such as singers, teachers, or public speakers, are more prone to developing laryngitis due to the constant stress placed on their vocal cords.

Irritants: Exposure to irritants can trigger laryngitis. Inhalation of smoke, chemical fumes, or other airborne irritants can lead to inflammation and swelling of the larynx and vocal cords. Allergies to environmental factors such as pollen or dust can also contribute to laryngitis.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD or GERD): In some cases, laryngitis can be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition where stomach acid flows back into the throat. The acid can irritate and inflame the larynx, leading to laryngitis symptoms.

Environmental factors: Dry or polluted air, low humidity, or exposure to cold temperatures can dry out the throat and larynx, making them more susceptible to inflammation and laryngitis.

Complications

Laryngitis itself is usually a temporary condition that resolves without intervention. However, in some cases, complications can arise, especially if the underlying cause of laryngitis is not properly managed or if the condition persists for an extended period. Some potential complications of laryngitis include:

Chronic laryngitis: If laryngitis becomes a recurring or long-term issue, it may progress into chronic laryngitis. Chronic laryngitis is characterized by persistent inflammation and hoarseness lasting for several weeks or longer.

Vocal cord strain or injury: Continued strain or abuse of the vocal cords during laryngitis can lead to vocal cord strain or injury. This can result in the development of vocal cord nodules, polyps, or vocal cord haemorrhage. These conditions may require medical treatment or even surgical intervention in some cases.

Voice changes and vocal dysfunction: Prolonged or recurrent laryngitis can cause permanent changes in voice quality, such as chronic hoarseness or weakness. In severe cases, it can lead to vocal dysfunction, making it difficult to speak or project the voice effectively.

Airway obstruction: In rare cases, severe inflammation of the larynx can cause swelling that leads to airway obstruction. This can result in breathing difficulties requiring  immediate medical attention.

Secondary infections: Laryngitis caused by a viral or bacterial infection can potentially lead to secondary infections. These may include sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, or other respiratory infections that require further medical treatment.

FAQs

How can I prevent laryngitis?

Practice good vocal hygiene: Avoid excessive shouting, screaming, or speaking loudly for prolonged periods.

Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to keep your vocal cords and throat hydrated. 

Limit exposure to irritants: Minimize exposure to smoke, chemical fumes, allergens, and other irritants that can irritate the larynx and vocal cords.

How common is laryngitis?

Laryngitis is a relatively common condition. It can affect individuals of all ages, but it is more common in adults, particularly those who use their voices intensively or have underlying respiratory conditions. The frequency of laryngitis varies depending on factors such as environmental exposures, overall health, and vocal habits.

What can I expect if I have laryngitis?

If you have laryngitis, you can expect symptoms such as hoarseness, loss of voice, sore throat, and potentially a dry or tickling sensation in the throat. The severity and duration of symptoms can vary from person to person. In most cases, laryngitis is self-limiting and resolves within a week or two with proper self-care and vocal rest.

Is laryngitis contagious?

Laryngitis itself is not contagious. However, if laryngitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, such as the common cold or flu, the underlying infection may be contagious. It's important to take precautions, such as practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding close contact with infected individuals, to prevent the spread of the underlying infection.

How long does laryngitis last?

The duration of laryngitis can vary depending on the cause and individual factors. Acute laryngitis, often caused by viral infections, typically lasts for about one to two weeks. However, if laryngitis persists beyond two weeks or becomes a recurring issue, it is considered chronic and may require medical evaluation and intervention.

When should I see a doctor?

You should consider seeing a doctor if:

  • Your symptoms worsen or do not improve after two weeks
  • You experience severe pain or difficulty breathing/swallowing
  • You have a high fever
  • You have recurrent episodes of laryngitis
  • Laryngitis significantly affects your ability to perform daily activities or your profession
  • You have concerns about your condition or need further guidance

Summary

Laryngitis is the inflammation and irritation of the larynx, resulting in symptoms such as hoarseness, difficulty speaking, and temporary loss of voice. It can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, overuse or strain of the vocal cords, exposure to irritants, or other factors. Laryngitis can usually be managed through self-care measures, including rest, hydration, humidification, and avoiding irritants. Complications are rare but can include chronic laryngitis, vocal cord strain or injury, voice changes, airway obstruction, and secondary infections. Laryngitis is typically diagnosed through medical history, physical examination, and, if needed, additional tests. Preventive measures involve practicing good vocal hygiene, staying hydrated, minimizing exposure to irritants, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If laryngitis persists, worsens, or causes significant discomfort, seeking medical attention is advised.

References

  1. Mayo Clinic. Laryngitis - Symptoms and causes [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. 2018. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/laryngitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20374262
  2. Laryngitis [Internet]. www.hopkinsmedicine.org. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/laryngitis
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Upper respiratory infection: Symptoms, contagious, treatment [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4022-upper-respiratory-infection4. Laryngitis [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2018. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/laryngitis/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Sheshpriya Gadiya

Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery - MBBS, Medicine, Imperial College London

Hello! I am Sheshpriya, a passionate medical writer dedicated to disseminating valuable healthcare knowledge. With a strong background in medicine and a keen interest in research, I have consistently contributed to the field of healthcare through my written work.

My articles are informed by a commitment to accuracy and a desire to make complex medical topics accessible to a broad readership. With a focus on evidence-based information, I strive to provide valuable insights that can enhance the understanding of various health-related subjects.

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