Laryngitis is inflammation of the vocal cords that results in a hoarse, raspy voice Figure 01. The vocal cords produce sound by vibrating. When they swell, the nature of the sound they produce changes. Mild inflammation usually results in mild hoarseness. As the inflammation worsens, the voice may be reduced to a harsh whisper.
Figure 01. Normal Vocal Cords
Laryngitis may be acute or chronic. In the acute form, the inflammation usually subsides without treatment after a few days to a week. In the chronic form, the inflammation persists indefinitely and may require treatment by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist). Severe inflammation may be accompanied by pain, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty breathing.
Acute laryngitis is usually caused by an upper respiratory tract infection. The infection may be localized to the larynx (voice box), or it may be part of a wider respiratory tract infection such as a cold or flu. Most cases of laryngitis are caused by viral infections, but bacterial infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia can also result in inflammation of the vocal cords.
Overuse of the voice can lead to laryngitis. Shouting or screaming can obviously cause hoarseness, but even more subtle overuse can result in laryngitis as well. Examples include working in loud-noise environments where you have to talk loudly to be heard, or living with someone with hearing loss. Laryngitis related to abuse of the voice may be acute (e.g., as a result of yelling at a football game) or chronic (e.g., as in overuse of the voice by professional singers).
Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, can cause chronic laryngitis. Regurgitation of stomach acid can cause irritation of the lining of the esophagus, larynx, and throat. Typically, acid reflux causes heartburn or an acid taste in the mouth, but many people with the condition have few symptoms other than a feeling of a “lump in the throat.” Left untreated, acid reflux can lead to chronic laryngitis, chronic sore throat, chronic coughing, and other problems.
Persistent laryngitis in the absence of an infection or other cause could be a sign of cancer. Local throat irritation and hoarseness are the first signs of laryngeal cancer, a condition associated with smoking and heavy alcohol consumption. This cancer often affects the vocal cords by damaging the nerve that causes them to move. Laryngeal cancer primarily strikes men between the ages of 50 and 65. Women are much less likely than men to contract laryngeal cancer.
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