Laryngitis: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

By Chesney Fowler, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
June 16, 2020

Laryngitis is a condition where the vocal box—also known as the larynx—and/or the vocal cords become swollen and irritated. This inflammation in the throat affects people of all ages and can be brought on voice strain, exposure to certain irritants or environmental factors, or by infection.

Some forms of laryngitis only last a short time—those with acute laryngitis experience symptoms for a few weeks or less. In cases of chronic, long-term laryngitis, individuals may see symptoms for more than three weeks. Common symptoms include pain in the throat, hoarseness, and loss of voice. While not usually serious, prolonged symptoms could signal underlying medical conditions.

What Is Laryngitis?

Laryngitis occurs when the voice box swells or is inflamed. The voice box contains the vocal cords, which, when functioning normally, open and close with ease, creating sound through movement and vibration. When the vocal cords swell or become irritated, the sounds produced by the voice become distorted, resulting in a strained or hoarse voice, and for many, discomfort and pain in the throat.

Laryngitis can be categorized into two different types—acute and chronic:

  • Acute laryngitis: Generally short-lived, lasting less than a month, acute laryngitis causes a hoarse and sore throat. Typically acute laryngitis is caused by an upper respiratory tract infection.
  • Chronic laryngitis: Chronic laryngitis lasts for three weeks or more, though most report no pain, despite similar symptoms of a hoarse throat and voice changes.

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Laryngitis Symptoms

Severity of symptoms of laryngitis vary from person to person. Symptoms usually last less than a few weeks, and most commonly are caused by a virus. If you have laryngitis, you may experience:

  • Persistent throat irritation or tickling
  • Dry or sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Hoarseness of the voice
  • Weakened tone or loss of voice

If you have mild symptoms of laryngitis, you may find relief in resting your voice. Keeping the throat well-lubricated with non-caffeinated liquids or throat lozenges can also ease discomfort associated with throat irritation.

What Causes Laryngitis?

Most commonly, laryngitis is caused by a viral infection. Other causes of laryngitis include bacterial infection, environmental stressors, exposure to irritating substances, or behavior.

Acute laryngitis

Short-term (acute) laryngitis is a temporary condition that can be caused by:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Viral infection
  • Straining the voice (yelling or excess talking)
  • Overconsumption of alcohol

Chronic laryngitis

Laryngitis that lasts for more than three weeks can be classified as chronic. Symptoms are usually more pronounced and may have lasting effects. Causes include:

Some symptoms of laryngitis could signal a more serious cause. Sore throat and voice distortions such as hoarseness are also seen in those with certain types of cancer, vocal cord paralysis, or changes in vocal cord shape with aging.

Laryngitis in infants and children

Viral and bacterial infections including laryngitis easily spread between children. In addition, if your child yells or sings, especially at high volumes, they may be more susceptible to developing laryngitis.

If your child complains of a sore throat, or you notice hoarseness in the voice, be sure to have them rest their voice and drink plenty of fluids to keep the throat coated. If your child’s symptoms worsen or don’t clear up within two weeks, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your child’s doctor. A medical professional can assess whether their symptoms require antibiotics for a bacterial infection, or if their laryngitis is caused by other factors.

Diagnosing Laryngitis

Because laryngitis affects the voice box, a doctor will often take a look at the inside of your throat to check for swelling, using a specialized mirror to get a good view of the condition of your vocal cords. To make the voice box easier to see, your doctor may also perform a laryngoscopy—they will insert a flexible, microscopic camera through the nose or mouth to check the larynx and throat for:

  • Bumps on the voice box
  • Redness or irritation
  • Rampant swelling
  • Vocal cord swelling

Widespread swelling in the area could point to environmental factors causing the laryngitis, while vocal cord inflammation may signal overuse of the voice. Should your doctor encounter a suspicious mass, they may suggest a biopsy, removing a small section of tissue for further study to rule out more serious conditions like throat cancer.

How to Treat Laryngitis

Thankfully, most cases of acute viral laryngitis clear up within a week without medical treatment. If the severity of your symptoms warrants medical attention, your doctor may prescribe steroids to reduce inflammation and swelling for both acute and chronic laryngitis, though this treatment protocol is typically reserved for more severe or urgent instances.

In most cases of chronic laryngitis, treatment will require addressing the underlying cause. For example, vocal cord paralysis requires vocal rest and vocal therapy with a speech pathologist. In some cases, minor surgeries such as phonosurgery may be used to alter the shape of vocal cords and lessen stress or tension caused by the voice. While cases of laryngitis caused by bacterial infections are rare, they can be treated with doctor-prescribed antibiotics.

The symptoms of laryngitis can often cause discomfort or pain—much of which can be improved with at-home remedies.

Home remedies for laryngitis

  • Steam: Inhaling steam, whether with a humidifier or in the shower, can alleviate throat dryness associated with laryngitis.
  • Throat lubrication: Keeping the throat well-lubricated with fluids and throat lozenges eases irritation caused by dryness.
  • Gargling: Gargling with a glass of warm water with half a teaspoon of both salt and baking soda may soothe the throat.
  • Rest the voice: Taking time off from talking gives the vocal box a change to regenerate and minimizes irritation. While it’s ideal to refrain from talking all together, this can be difficult, so at minimum, it’s important to avoid yelling or whispering, which can strain the voice.
  • Avoid decongestants: Decongestants can dry the throat and worsen symptoms of laryngitis.

Laryngitis Prevention

While there is no way to prevent laryngitis caused by an infection, there are other steps you can take to prevent other instances of laryngitis including:

  • Voice control: Avoid straining the voice and limit prolonged yelling, loud singing or excessive whispering.
  • Avoid smoke: Don’t smoke and limit your exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Environmental factors: Curb exposure to irritants and chemicals if they’ve caused irritation in the past.
  • Special diet: If you’re prone to acid reflux, avoid eating spicy foods—the excess stomach acid could lead to throat irritation. Limiting alcohol and caffeine can ensure you retain more water in the body.
  • Limit clearing the throat: Excessive throat clearing can actually increase swelling, secrete more mucus, and cause further irritation.

Risk Factors and Complications

Risk factors for laryngitis include:

  • Existing respiratory infections: If you already have an upper respiratory infection including sinusitis, a cold, or bronchitis, you may be more likely to develop into laryngitis.
  • Substance exposure: If your day-to-day includes being around smoke or chemical substances, you are at a higher risk for developing laryngitis.
  • Daily activities: Those who smoke or drink alcohol excessively are more likely to develop laryngitis.
  • Overuse of the voice: Regular shouting, singing, or conversing loudly may increase the risk for laryngitis, especially for people in certain professions, including vocalists, performers and others who use their voice regularly

Complications from laryngitis include:

  • Spread of infection: If laryngitis is caused by an infection, the infection could spread to other areas of the respiratory tract or blood stream.
  • Croup: Most common in children and infants, laryngitis can lead to croup—severe swelling around the vocal cords. Croup is identified by its signature seal-like “barking” cough. If you suspect your child has croup, contact a doctor right away. If your child seems to be struggling to breathe, call 911 immediately.
  • Epiglottitis: Epiglottitis is an infection of the voice box which can be seen in both children and adults, though it’s most common in children between the ages of 2-6. It is extremely rare, but it is life-threatening. Children are routinely vaccinated against Haemophilus influenzae type B (often shortened to Hib) to prevent epiglottitis due to Hib. The epiglottis is the lid of tissue that covers the trachea (windpipe), keeping food and liquid out of the lungs. Epiglottitis occurs when the epiglottis and its surrounding tissue swell and close off or partially block the windpipe. Symptoms of epiglottis include trouble swallowing, problems breathing, excessive salivation, muffled voice and high fever. If you have any concern about epiglottitis, call 911 or go to the nearest ER immediately. Treatment of epiglottitis usually involves a hospital stay, including intravenous antibiotics.

When to See a Doctor

If symptoms of laryngitis don’t clear up on their own within a week or worsen, speak with your doctor. Some symptoms of laryngitis require immediate attention or can signal underlying issues. These symptoms include:

  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Persistent fever
  • Severe throat pain

In children, if you notice that your child seems to be struggling to breathe, see a doctor right away.

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chesney Fowler, MD

Dr. Fowler is an emergency medicine physician and received her MD from George Washington University. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Care Health System. In addition to her work at K Health, Dr. Fowler is a practicing emergency medicine physician in Washington, DC.