How speech occurs
Speech occurs when air flows from the lungs, up the windpipe (trachea) and through the voice box (larynx). This causes the vocal cords to vibrate, creating sound. Sound is shaped into words by the muscles controlling the soft palate, tongue and lips.
Vocal cords open and closed
Laryngitis is an inflammation of your voice box (larynx) from overuse, irritation or infection.
Inside the larynx are your vocal cords — two folds of mucous membrane covering muscle and cartilage. Normally, your vocal cords open and close smoothly, forming sounds through their movement and vibration.
But with laryngitis, your vocal cords become inflamed or irritated. This swelling causes distortion of the sounds produced by air passing over them. As a result, your voice sounds hoarse. In some cases of laryngitis, your voice can become almost undetectable.
Laryngitis may be short-lived (acute) or long lasting (chronic). Most cases of laryngitis are triggered by a temporary viral infection or vocal strain and aren't serious. Persistent hoarseness can sometimes signal a more serious underlying medical condition.
In most cases laryngitis symptoms last less than a couple of weeks and are caused by something minor, such as a virus. Less often, laryngitis symptoms are caused by something more serious or long lasting. Laryngitis signs and symptoms can include:
- Weak voice or voice loss
- Tickling sensation and rawness of your throat
- Sore throat
- Dry throat
- Dry cough
When to see a doctor
You can manage most acute cases of laryngitis with self-care steps, such as resting your voice and drinking plenty of fluids. Strenuous use of your voice during an episode of acute laryngitis can damage your vocal cords.
Make an appointment with a doctor if your laryngitis symptoms last more than two weeks.
Seek immediate medical attention if you:
- Have trouble breathing
- Cough up blood
- Have a fever that won't go away
- Have increasing pain
- Have trouble swallowing
Seek immediate medical attention if your child:
- Makes noisy, high-pitched breathing sounds when inhaling (stridor)
- Drools more than usual
- Has trouble swallowing
- Has difficulty breathing
- Has a fever higher than 103 F (39.4 C)
These signs and symptoms may indicate croup — inflammation of the larynx and the airway just beneath it. Although croup can usually be treated at home, severe symptoms require medical attention. These symptoms can also indicate epiglottitis, an inflammation of the tissue that acts as a lid (epiglottis) to cover the windpipe (trachea), which can be life-threatening for children and adults.
Most cases of laryngitis are temporary and improve after the underlying cause gets better. Causes of acute laryngitis include:
- Viral infections similar to those that cause a cold
- Vocal strain, caused by yelling or overusing your voice
- Bacterial infections, such as diphtheria, although this is rare, in large part due to increasing rates of vaccination
Laryngitis that lasts longer than three weeks is known as chronic laryngitis. This type of laryngitis is generally caused by exposure to irritants over time. Chronic laryngitis can cause vocal cord strain and injuries or growths on the vocal cords (polyps or nodules). These injuries can be caused by:
- Inhaled irritants, such as chemical fumes, allergens or smoke
- Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Chronic sinusitis
- Excessive alcohol use
- Habitual overuse of your voice (such as with singers or cheerleaders)
Less common causes of chronic laryngitis include:
- Bacterial or fungal infections
- Infections with certain parasites
Other causes of chronic hoarseness include:
- Vocal cord paralysis, which can result from injury, a stroke, a lung tumor or other health conditions
- Bowing of the vocal cords in old age
Risk factors for laryngitis include:
- Having a respiratory infection, such as a cold, bronchitis or sinusitis
- Exposure to irritating substances, such as cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol intake, stomach acid or workplace chemicals
- Overusing your voice, by speaking too much, speaking too loudly, shouting or singing
In some cases of laryngitis caused by infection, the infection may spread to other parts of the respiratory tract.
To prevent dryness or irritation to your vocal cords:
- Don't smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke. Smoke dries your throat and irritates your vocal cords.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine. These cause you to lose total body water.
- Drink plenty of water. Fluids help keep the mucus in your throat thin and easy to clear.
- Avoid eating spicy foods. Spicy foods can cause stomach acid to move into the throat or esophagus, causing heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Include whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet. These foods contain vitamins A, E and C, and help keep the mucous membranes that line the throat healthy.
- Avoid clearing your throat. This does more harm than good, because it causes an abnormal vibration of your vocal cords and can increase swelling. Clearing your throat also causes your throat to secrete more mucus and feel more irritated, making you want to clear your throat again.
- Avoid upper respiratory infections. Wash your hands often, and avoid contact with people who have upper respiratory infections such as colds.