Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx. Located at the upper end of the trachea, or windpipe, the larynx contains the vocal chords that are used to form sounds. Because the larynx plays such an important role in speech, it is sometimes called the "voice box." When the larynx becomes inflamed in laryngitis, it swells and reddens. The major symptom of laryngitis is hoarseness. Other symptoms include cough, a sore throat, and noisy breathing.
Laryngitis can be caused by infections of the upper respiratory tract, and is either acute or chronic. Acute infectious laryngitis strikes quickly and lasts a short time. The laryngitis that accompanies the common cold, the flu, or a bacterial infection as in strep throat, are all examples of acute laryngitis. Chronic infectious laryngitis is more serious and long lasting. Chronic infectious laryngitis can result from infection by the tuberculosis bacterium or by various yeasts or other fungi.
Although it is relatively rare, one form of acute infectious laryngitis can be fatal. The cause of this deadly laryngitis is a bacterium called Haemophilius influensae. In this infection, the larynx and the tissues surrounding it swell to such a degree that the windpipe becomes blocked. If untreated, the affected person can suffocate. This infection is extremely dangerous because the symptoms progress quickly, especially in children. A child with a cold or flu that leads to laryngitis should be watched carefully for signs of obstructed breathing.
Laryngitis can result from causes other than infections. Raising the voice for long periods of time has been known to cause laryngitis. Smoking has been linked to chronic laryngitis. A condition called gastrointestinal reflux can also lead to chronic laryngitis. In this condition, stomach acid is forced upward, "refluxed," into the esophagus or food tube. If this acid is forced high enough, it can spill over into the windpipe, which can irritate the larynx and eventually cause laryngitis. Doctors treat this kind of laryngitis with antacids that neutralize the stomach acid.
Most of us will experience a bout of acute laryngitis in our lifetimes. Whether brought on by a cold or flu or simply talking too much, the cure is the same: rest the voice and drink lots of fluids. Gargling with warm saltwater can also be soothing. Sprays that numb the throat are not recommended because they tend to dry out delicate tissues.