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Laryngitis

Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, May 2011.

This factsheet is for people who have laryngitis, or who would like information about it.

Laryngitis is inflammation of the larynx (voice box), usually caused by an infection.

About laryngitis

Laryngitis is inflammation of your larynx. It's usually caused by a viral infection.

Your larynx is found in the front of your neck at the level of the 'Adam's apple', which is often much easier to notice in men than it is in women. It is an air passage that extends from your tongue to your trachea and produces the sounds you make when you speak. It also stops food entering your trachea and allows you to breathe.

Illustration showing location of the larynx and surrounding structures

Types of laryngitis

There are two types of laryngitis – chronic and acute. Acute laryngitis starts suddenly and will usually go away on its own. This is the most common type of laryngitis.

If your symptoms last for more than three weeks, this is known as chronic laryngitis. Chronic laryngitis takes longer to develop and your symptoms will last for longer.

Symptoms of laryngitis

The symptoms of laryngitis vary depending on how inflamed your larynx is. The possible symptoms include:

  • hoarseness (a strained, raspy voice) – inflammation of your larynx alters the way that your vocal cords vibrate and can change the sound of your voice
  • losing your voice (not being able to speak)
  • a cough
  • difficulty swallowing
  • a sore throat
  • fever (high temperature)

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than laryngitis. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.

Complications of laryngitis

Sometimes you may get a secondary bacterial infection when you have laryngitis. This means that bacteria infect your airways, as well as the virus that has caused laryngitis. If you develop a secondary bacterial infection, your GP will prescribe you a course of antibiotics to take.

Occasionally, swelling in the larynx caused by inflammation can make it difficult for small children to breathe. If this happens, breathing in and out will be noisy and you should seek urgent medical attention.

Causes of laryngitis

There are several possible causes of laryngitis. These are listed below.

  • A viral infection – acute laryngitis is often linked to another viral infection, such as the common cold or flu.
  • Over-using your voice – for example, by regularly talking or singing very loudly.
  • Smoking.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Breathing in irritants such as dust, fumes or chemicals.
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease – this is a condition where acid from your stomach leaks back up into your oesophagus.
  • A benign (non-cancerous) cyst on your vocal cords.
  • An allergic reaction.
  • A bacterial infection.
  • Cancer of your larynx (laryngeal cancer).

Laryngitis may also be caused if you're coughing a lot – for example, if you have bronchitis or pneumonia.

Sometimes chronic laryngitis has no clear cause.

Diagnosis of laryngitis

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and your medical history. He or she may also look down your throat with a mirror. This may show that the lining of your larynx is red or swollen.

Hoarseness of your voice can sometimes be caused by cancer of your larynx. So, if your symptoms last for four weeks or more, your GP may ask you to have some further tests.

Your GP may refer you to a surgeon who specialises in conditions of the ear, nose and throat (an ENT surgeon). He or she may look down your throat to find out what is causing your hoarseness. This is done using a narrow, flexible, tube-like telescopic camera called an endoscope. The endoscope is passed through your nose and into your throat. This procedure is called a laryngoscopy. You will usually be given a local anaesthetic to numb your throat, so you won't feel any pain.

Treatment of laryngitis

Laryngitis usually gets better on its own. However, there are some things that you can do to help relieve your symptoms in the meantime.

  • Rest your voice. Try not to whisper as this will strain your voice more than speaking normally.
  • If you're in pain, take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and, if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
  • Breathe in air with lots of moisture in it. Try inhaling steam or using a humidifier.
  • Make sure you drink enough fluids.
  • If you smoke or drink alcohol, stop, at least until you're feeling better.

If your laryngitis has been caused by a separate condition such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, this will need to be treated. You will also need treatment for any related infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Treatment of any related conditions will help to improve the symptoms of laryngitis.

If your laryngitis has been caused by a benign cyst on your vocal cords, you may need to have a procedure to remove the cyst. You will usually be given a general anaesthetic, which means you will be asleep during the operation.

If you have chronic laryngitis with no clear cause, your GP may refer you to a speech therapist. He or she may be able to give you some exercises to do to help reduce the hoarseness of your voice.

 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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  • Publication date: May 2011