Laryngitis: Know When to See a Doctor

Acute laryngitis can result from something as simple as yelling too much at a football game or as disruptive as allergies or as painful as an upper respiratory infection. In any event, too much strain on your vocal cords can lead to the formation of throat polyps and chronic laryngitis, which in some cases may require surgery to correct.

Because treating chronic laryngitis early on will lead to a better outcome than if you wait too long, it’s important to know when a bout of hoarseness may need medical attention.

What Is Acute Laryngitis?

Laryngitis occurs when your larynx, or voice box, becomes irritated and inflamed. A sore throat and a dry cough may accompany laryngitis. Acute laryngitis can develop from overusing your voice or from a common cold virus. Allergies can also lead to acute episodes of laryngitis. And if you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you may also get hoarse from time to time.

If vocal cord straining is the cause of your laryngitis, the treatment is easy. Resting your voice and drinking lots of fluids will usually get you back to normal. Rest also may be your best bet if a virus is the culprit. In rare cases, a bacterial infection can cause laryngitis; you may need antibiotics to knock out that infection and resume good health. When the underlying cause is GERD or allergies or exposure to irritants or chemicals, you’ll need to address those conditions before getting relief.

Laryngitis that resolves on its own after a short time shouldn’t need a medical evaluation unless it returns or if you notice a change in your voice.


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Chronic Laryngitis

If your laryngitis lasts for at least three weeks, it’s said to be chronic and shouldn’t be ignored. Seek medical attention soon.

Prolonged strain on your vocal cords can lead to the growth of throat polyps or nodules on your larynx. Polyps tend to form on one vocal cord, and are usually benign (non-cancerous). However, they can cause permanent changes to your voice if they are not treated. And as with most medical conditions, early treatment of throat polyps is better than waiting too long.

“Nodules are not cancer; but the longer they are left there, the more scarring and changes in the voice you’ll have, and the harder it may be to treat,” says laryngologist Inna Husain, MD, with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “As with any condition, coming in sooner is better. Most people don’t know that there is a medical reason behind a change in voice, and a medical professional can best advise them.”

Keep in mind that both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time can cause hoarseness and raise the risk of throat cancer.

When You See the Doctor

If you can’t reclaim your voice from a prolonged bout of laryngitis, you should see a doctor. You may not need to see a specialist, called a laryngologist, right away. Your primary care physician or even a doctor at a walk-in clinic may be able to look at your throat and provide an initial diagnosis. If it looks like there are throat polyps or signs of vocal cord injury, you’d likely be referred to a laryngologist.

The main diagnostic test is a laryngoscopy. The doctor uses a tiny light and mirror to get a good look at the back of your throat. The doctor may also insert an endoscope into your nose or mouth to get an even more detailed view of your vocal cords. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube-like instrument with a small camera at one end. It sends images back to a screen that the doctor looks at to see the size, location, and other details of any throat polyps, scars, or other signs of damage. A suspicious polyp may be biopsied to determine if it’s cancerous.

Whether the throat polyps are cancerous or benign, surgery is usually required to remove them and get your voice back to normal. Such an operation is usually done on an outpatient basis. Voice therapy may be recommended after surgery.

Originally posted in September 2016 and updated.

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