Reinke's edema is an enlargement of the upper layer of covering of the vocal fold (called Reinke's space, after the man who first described this layer). The most common cause of Reinke's edema is smoking. In fact, the condition is almost never seen in nonsmokers. The typical enlargement is caused by an accumulation of gelatinous fluid. Sometimes, Reinke's edema is mistakenly identified as 'swollen' vocal folds. The old term for these lesions is "polyp", but now we know that Reinke's edema (also called polypoid corditis, just to confuse you) and vocal fold polyps are not the same.
The swelling of the vocal fold mucosa is caused by smoking.
The swollen vocal fold covering vibrates more slowly than normal vocal folds, resulting in raspiness and significantly lowered vocal pitch. For this reason, women more frequently notice the symptoms than men, who already have a low-pitched voice. The swelling can get so large that it can partially block the airway, causing a sensation of shortness of breath.
Often, patients diagnosed with Reinke's edema are concerned about the risk of cancer, since both are caused by smoking. Rarely is Reinke's edema found to be malignant (cancerous). However, the presence of Reinke's edema should be considered your body's "warning signal" to stop smoking immediately. Cessation of smoking is essential in the treatment for Reinke's edema. Without this, the swelling almost always returns after surgery. Sometimes, the cessation of smoking alone will improve a mild case of edema to the point that surgery is not necessary.