Lost Your Voice? What to Know About Laryngitis

Take a deep breath. While you did that, your vocal folds, located in your larynx, were open.

Now say, “Good morning.” When you spoke, your vocal folds closed and vibrated against each other as air passed through them, creating sound. The muscles in your mouth turned that sound into words.

Have you ever tried to speak and nothing came out? Or had a voice that was hoarse or sounded different? You might have had acute (short-term) laryngitis—and maybe it helped you realize just how much you rely on your larynx to get through the day.

We spoke to Rupali (Pali) Shah, MD, a laryngologist at the UNC Voice Center, about causes and treatment for laryngitis and when you should see a doctor.

What are the causes and symptoms of laryngitis?

“Acute laryngitis occurs when there is inflammation and swelling of the vocal folds, changing the sound of the voice,” Dr. Shah says. “It’s caused by infection, irritation or overuse.”

Viral respiratory infections, such as the cold or flu, commonly cause laryngitis. Laryngitis resulting from a bacterial infection is much less common.

You can irritate or overuse your vocal folds by yelling or straining.

“When your vocal folds are inflamed, they don’t vibrate properly, and that changes the sound of your voice,” Dr. Shah says.

Symptoms of laryngitis include hoarseness and other changes in voice such as roughness, voice loss or fatigue, discomfort when speaking and throat irritation.

What is the treatment for laryngitis?

A case of acute laryngitis is inconvenient, but it’s usually not serious. As with a cold, your best option with laryngitis is to wait for the virus to run its course. Your voice should return to regular strength within a week or two.

“You’ll need to rest your voice and avoid straining,” Dr. Shah says. “You can do soothing things for your voice box, including lots of hydration and staying away from acidic drinks like soda, alcohol and coffee. Avoid irritants like smoking.”

The moisture from a steamy bathroom or a humidifier can also help your vocal folds.

Try not to whisper, because it “recruits extraneous muscles, causing pain and fatigue,” Dr. Shah says. “Straining or pushing through is going to lead to more irritation of the folds.”

Dr. Shah says that acute laryngitis can occasionally be treated with steroids. However, they aren’t recommended when you are using your voice heavily, because you can further strain your voice before the vocal folds have properly healed.

When should you see a doctor about laryngitis?

Most of the time, acute laryngitis will resolve on its own, but Dr. Shah says you should seek immediate care if you have severe pain when talking or swallowing, if you have trouble breathing or if you cough up blood.

If your symptoms last longer than two weeks, you may have chronic laryngitis. You should see an otolaryngologist—also called an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor—to determine if there is an underlying reason for it.

“We’ll look to see if there is a functional or structural cause for the hoarseness,” Dr. Shah says. “There may be a neurologic cause, such as vocal fold paralysis, or lesions, such as vocal nodules, polyps, papillomas, cysts, or even a cancer or precancer.”

Chronic laryngitis could also be caused by smoking, allergens, acid reflux or sinus problems.

Treatment for chronic laryngitis will depend on the cause, but Dr. Shah urges people struggling with hoarseness to be evaluated.

“It’s better to intervene early to avoid complications or worsening quality of life,” she says. “As the issue gets worse, it may become harder to do your job, and not having your normal voice can lead to depression and social isolation. We have medical and surgical treatments and noninvasive voice therapy.”

How do you prevent laryngitis?

You can protect the health of your voice by not smoking and by avoiding secondhand smoke and other irritants, such as allergens and fumes. Consider moderating your alcohol and soda consumption, as they dry out the throat.

“Stay hydrated,” Dr. Shah says. “Less coffee, more water.”

During cold and flu season, practice good hygiene to reduce your risk of a respiratory illness. Don’t shout or scream at events, and be mindful about raising or straining your voice when you speak in loud environments.

 Not feeling well? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.