Laryngitis (lair-in-JY-tis) is inflammation of the vocal cords that causes hoarseness or a temporary loss of voice.
The vocal cords are the two bands of muscle found inside the larynx (LAIR-inks), or voice box, located between the base of the tongue and the top of the trachea * . As they let air into and out of the lungs, the vocal cords are relaxed. When a person talks, however, the vocal cords tighten as air passes through them, causing the cords to vibrate and thereby produce sound.
People who lose their voice after cheering too much at a sporting event or who begin to sound hoarse or raspy when they have a bad cold probably have laryngitis. Laryngitis refers to inflammation or irritation of the vocal cords. Inflammation causes swelling, which prevents the vocal cords from working properly, and the sounds they produce can seem strange or be hard to hear. Although laryngitis can make it difficult to communicate, it is rarely serious.
Almost everyone gets laryngitis at some point, whether the condition causes a low raspy whisper or a complete loss of voice. Overusing the voice—yelling, speaking too loudly or for too long, and even singing—can lead to laryngitis. People who use their voice constantly, such as radio announcers, politicians, and singers, get laryngitis more often than other people do. The larynx is located along the respiratory tract * , which is why respiratory infections such as the flu (influenza) and the common cold can easily spread to the voice box and cause laryngitis. People who have allergies or who develop polyps * on the vocal cords may also experience laryngitis. Smoking, heavy drinking, inhaling harmful fumes, and acid reflux * all irritate and inflame the vocal cords and can result in long-term, or chronic, laryngitis.
The most obvious symptoms of laryngitis are a hoarse or low voice, the inability to speak above a whisper, a raw feeling or sensation of having a lump in the throat, difficulty swallowing, and the need to clear the throat often. When laryngitis is caused by an infection such as the flu, a person may also experience sneezing, coughing, runny nose, headache, and fever.
Severe laryngitis can sometimes lead to breathing problems, especially in young children. Anyone with laryngitis who develops difficulty breathing or high fever, or who is not getting better after a few days, needs medical care.
A doctor will ask about a person's symptoms and voice use to help determine whether laryngitis is the result of a respiratory infection or some other cause. In some cases, a doctor might take a close look at the vocal cords by holding a small mirror at the back of the throat. To get an even better view, a doctor might use a tiny camera on a long, thin tube that goes through the mouth or nose. This method allows the doctor to watch the vocal cords in action.
Laryngitis usually disappears after a few days, but it can last much longer and happen more often in people who are smokers or heavy drinkers, or who use their voices for hours at a time in their jobs. It may take weeks of voice rest before the voice returns to normal. Such long-term hoarseness might cause complications that require speech therapy to help prevent further damage. If growths have formed on the vocal cords over time, surgery may be needed.
Laryngitis is not contagious, but colds, flu, and other infections that cause it are. Doing what is possible to avoid these infections (such as frequent hand washing) decreases a person's chances of getting laryngitis.
Following these prevention basics can help maintain a healthy voice for life:
See also Bronchiolitis and Infectious Bronchitis • Common Cold • Influenza • Sore Throat/Strep Throat • Tobacco-Related Diseases: Overview
Sataloff, Robert T., et al. Reflux Laryngitis and Related Disorders, 4th ed. San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2013.
MedlinePlus. “Laryngitis.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001385.htm (accessed November 17, 2015).
National Center for Voice and Speech. 136 South Main St., Suite 320, Salt Lake City, UT 84101-1623. Telephone: 801-596-2012. Website: http://www.ncvs.org (accessed November 17, 2015).
* trachea (TRAY-kee-uh) is the firm, tubular structure that carries air from the throat to the lungs. Also called the windpipe.
* respiratory tract includes the nose, mouth, throat, and lungs. It is the pathway through which air and gases are transported down into the lungs and back out of the body.
* polyps (PAH-lips) are bumps or growths usually on the lining or surface of a body part (such as the nose or intestine). Their size can range from tiny to large enough to cause pain or obstruction. They may be harmless, but they also may be cancerous.
* acid reflux is a condition in which stomach acid flows upward into the esophagus, often causing a burning sensation (so-called heartburn) in the upper abdomen or chest.
* virus (VY-rus) is a tiny infectious agent that can cause infectious diseases. A virus can only reproduce within the cells it infects.
* antibiotic (an-tie-by-AH-tik) is a drug that kills or slows the growth of bacteria.