What is laryngitis?

Laryngitis is an inflammation of the part of the throat called the larynx or voice box. The larynx sits just above the trachea, where the lungs and throat meet. On each side of the larynx are two folds of skin called the vocal cords, which tighten or loosen to form recognizable speech and sounds. If you've ever stretched out the neck of a balloon to make high-pitched squeaks, you can understand how these vocal cords work to create human speech.

The vocal cords are usually covered with a thin, smooth layer of mucus to keep them lubricated. However, when the larynx becomes inflamed from a virus or bacterial infection, the cords swell and the mucus can become thin or dry. The result is a hoarse or scratchy voice, often accompanied by fever and cough. Most cases of laryngitis are caused by viral infections, but some are caused by bacteria similar to strep.

Standard treatment for laryngitis depends on the root cause. If the laryngitis is viral in nature, doctors usually suggest complete vocal rest and pain relievers for fever symptoms. For the less common bacterial laryngitis, a round of antibiotics may also be prescribed. Short-term (acute) laryngitis is usually not a cause for alarm: the vocal cords should return to normal within a few weeks at most. However, long-term (chronic) laryngitis can be a symptom of much more serious conditions, such as throat cancer or nodules on the vocal cords.

Many people develop laryngitis as a result of vocal strain. Those who routinely use their voices as part of their occupations should use amplification equipment or receive voice training. Cheerleaders, coaches, singers, and others whose livelihoods depend on their voices need to be especially aware of the strains on their throats. Professional singers often receive training on how to protect themselves from stress-induced laryngitis.

Other factors that can lead to laryngitis include first-hand and second-hand cigarette smoke, environmental irritants, and excessive caffeine intake. These substances tend to dry out the essential mucous layer over the vocal cords, leaving them vulnerable to inflammation. Sucking on a medicated lozenge or gargling with salt water may relieve some of the pain, but alcohol-based mouthwashes may cause more dryness. The best solution is to avoid these irritants as much as possible to prevent a regular recurrence of laryngitis.

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