When the temperature drops, the weather changes and we all begin to get colds or the flu. With these upper respiratory infections come fatigue, muscle aches, sneezing, coughing and often laryngitis. The laryngitis may be the most debilitating aspect of the illness because it can be painful and rob us of our ability to communicate, socialize and work.
What is Laryngitis?
Laryngitis is an inflammation of the vocal folds of the voice box. They can become inflamed due to infection, overuse or irritation. When your vocal folds are inflamed they do not vibrate smoothly and you develop a hoarse, strained and sometimes barely audible voice.
Laryngitis can be short lived (acute) or long lived (chronic). The typical laryngitis should be acute and last less than two weeks. When symptoms are present longer than two weeks, there may be a more serious problem.
The symptoms of laryngitis can be caused by numerous factors. The most common cause is a viral upper respiratory in infection. Vocal abuse in the form of smoking or yelling commonly leads to laryngitis. The medical condition of laryngopharyngeal reflux is also a well known cause of laryngitis. This occurs when stomach acid refluxes into the throat and irritates the vocal folds. Most people with this condition actually do not have any symptoms of heartburn or indigestion.
Generally, laryngitis should resolve in a few days and certainly within two weeks. The symptoms often improve by themselves. Your symptoms can initially be treated with voice rest, conservative voice use and general rest to get your whole body stronger. Drinking water and throat lozenges may also be helpful. Mentholated cough drops should be avoided as these can be extremely irritating to the vocal folds.
If you have laryngitis for longer than two weeks or you are a professional voice user you should seek the opinion of an Otolaryngologist. The doctor will listen to your voice and should then look at your vocal folds with an endoscope. The endoscope may be a flexible fiberoptic tube that is passed through the nose or a rigid endoscope passed through the mouth. A superior instrument for evaluating the vocal folds is a laryngovideostroboscope. This uses a rigid endoscope and a strobe light to view the vibration for vocal folds in slow motion through the mouth. This is essential because it is the vibration that creates your voice. If the vibration is abnormal you will sound hoarse. The entire examination is quick and pain free.
Treatment for laryngitis depends on the cause of the problem and the speed at which your voice needs to return to normal. If the laryngitis is due to a viral infection supportive care is the best treatment. Use your voice more conservatively, do not clear your throat, avoid whispering, rest, drink lots of water, use a humidifier at home, avoid smoke and limit alcohol and caffeine intake.
If you are a professional voice user, such as a singer or lawyer, you may need your voice to return more quickly for an important engagement. In that case, discuss this with your Otolaryngologist as treatment with steroids may be warranted. For more chronic laryngitis the underlying cause must be determined and then that needs to be treated. The list of causes may range from laryngopharyngeal reflux, which is treated medically, to a vocal fold polyp which is treated surgically.
If you are a smoker you should stop smoking and see an Otolaryngologist to make sure cancer is not involved. When vocal fold cancer is detected early, it can usually be treated successfully with surgery or radiation.
Often prevention is the best course of action. When you are sick or you feel laryngitis developing the best thing to do is take care of yourself and your voice. Use your voice only when you need to and follow the steps mentioned above. Hopefully this will keep you from losing your voice and keep you out of the doctor's office.