Laryngitis: When Your Voice Goes on Vacation

Woman feeling discomfort in her throat from laryngitis while standing in her kitchen.

The term “voice box” is pretty deceptive. As a kid, you might have interpreted the phrase literally and imagined that a mechanical looking cube resided at the center of your throat–responsible for all your vocalizations. The reality is a little bit weirder–and not really box like at all.

When people use the phrase “voice box,” they’re typically referring to an organ in your throat called the larynx. (Voice box is much easier to spell–but as far as colloquial terms for your larynx goes, “vocal cords” is much more accurate.) And your larynx is responsible for generating your unique and individual voice.

As air passes through your trachea, your larynx causes that air to vibrate. That vibration is, well, your voice! Your lips, tongue, and other soft tissues mold that voice into words and communication. But the tone comes from your larynx. Which is why, occasionally, you might run into illnesses or conditions that silence your voice. You may try to talk but it comes out raspy , thin or just quiet.

This is usually the result of a condition called laryngitis.

Figuring out why you can’t talk

Think of your larynx as two flaps inside a tube. When air passes over these flaps, the velocity of that air causes them to vibrate. This vibration causes sound–and this sound is your voice. That’s, essentially, how your vocal cords work!

It’s a deceptively simple function. And usually it works flawlessly. However, anything that interferes with that vibration will ultimately minimize the sound of your voice. Often and most commonly, the culprit is laryngitis.

But sometimes there can be other reasons that your vocal cords don’t want to function. Some of those other reasons could include the following:

  • Nodules or cysts on your vocal cords
  • Damage to your vocal cords
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux)
  • Neurological reasons
  • Paralysis of the vocal cords

That said, laryngitis is nearly always the cause of your lost voice–so it makes sense for your ENT to try to treat that first.

What is laryngitis?

Inflammation is one of your body’s primary defense mechanisms–and it can occur for a wide variety of reasons. Laryngitis occurs when your vocal cords are inflamed. Typically, this swelling interferes with the usual operation of your larynx. When they are inflamed, your vocal cords can’t vibrate properly. As a result, the air passing through your trachea picks up no vibrations. In other words, you lose your voice!

This can occur as a result of injury or illness. What causes laryngitis? And what are the symptoms of laryngitis? Well, that depends on the type of laryngitis you’re dealing with. There are two basic categories of this particular voice-stealing ailment.

Acute laryngitis

The most common form of laryngitis is called acute laryngitis. Essentially, this means that your symptoms will likely fall within the usual begin-and-end dates of this condition. For most people, laryngitis will resolve itself within a few weeks. You don’t even really have to do anything!

Acute laryngitis is often caused by another infection or illness. Often, this includes:

  • Influenza
  • The common cold
  • Sinus infections
  • Bronchitis
  • And more

If you have acute laryngitis, you’ll likely experience symptoms that last anywhere between a few days and a few weeks (three weeks is the benchmark that most ENTs will give you). Given sufficient rest, your symptoms will eventually go away and your voice will recover.

Chronic laryngitis

Chronic laryngitis occurs when your laryngitis does not go away after a few weeks like it typically does. Symptoms linger–for months, or longer. Typically, this long term form of laryngitis is caused by the following:

  • Exposure to irritants, such as chemicals
  • Overusing your voice (doing a lot of screaming, yelling, cheering, singing, etc.)
  • Smoking (and yes, that includes vaping)
  • Irritation caused by medications
  • Throat injuries (such as a collision)
  • Infections and disease (such as chronic sinus infections)

In these cases, the approach to treatment will depend on the underlying cause. In some cases, chronic laryngitis can eventually cause damage to the vocal cords or cause polyps or nodules to grow on the larynx. You might want to know when to see a doctor about laryngitis. Well, once you pass that three week mark (or get close to it) is a good time–or sooner if the discomfort is too much to bear.

In other words, if your laryngitis does not go away on its own, it’s important to schedule an appointment with an ENT to get to the bottom of what’s happening!

How is laryngitis treated?

In most cases, treatment for laryngitis occurs at home. Even when patients do nothing special or extra, the symptoms will typically go away on their own within a few days to a few weeks. Home remedies for laryngitis are usually designed to minimize symptoms or improve your overall comfort. Some of the most common include the following:

  • Rest your voice. Try to talk as little as possible
  • Drink lots of fluid and plenty of water
  • Turn on a humidifier. Keep that humidifier going
  • Avoid decongestants, as these will effectively dry out your throat
  • Try gargling salt water (the warm salt water is good for inflammation)

If your laryngitis does not go away, your ENT may recommend some medical treatments designed to help you feel better and control swelling. These treatments may include:

  • Antibiotics: This approach is not exactly common–laryngitis is rarely caused by a bacterial infection, so antibiotics rarely do much good at all. Still, there are some cases where antibiotics are appropriate.
  • Corticosteroids: This is a short term solution if you urgently need to speak (maybe you have a big presentation coming up). The steroid treatment will help to reduce swelling and minimize the symptoms of your laryngitis. This is usually not intended as a long-term solution, however.
  • Voice therapy: If you have chronic laryngitis and it just will not go away, you may need to adapt–and learn a new way of speaking that doesn’t stress your vocal cords quite so much. Voice therapy can help with that.

Your voice will come back from vacation

Laryngitis is an incredibly common condition. And the good news is that your voice will (almost) always come back from this little vacation–especially once the underlying condition is taken care of. (Most often, your immune system will take care of this on its own.)

So when your vocal cords start hurting–and your voice starts to falter–it’s a good idea to listen to your body. After all, your larynx is an incredibly important part of how you speak–more interesting than a simple box.

Make sure to treat it right!

Talk to your ENT about any symptoms or concerns you might have!

Want more information?

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