The larynx is the voice box that allows us to speak, shout, whisper, and sing. The larynx consists of a cartilage skeleton that houses the vocal cords that are covered by a mucus lining. Muscles inside the larynx adjust the position, shape, and tension of the vocal cords, allowing us to make different sounds from whispering to singing.
Any change in the air flow (which is generated by the lungs exhaling air) across the vocal cords will affect the voice and the quality of the sound.
The larynx is located at the junction of the mouth and trachea and has a flap-like covering called the epiglottis, whose job it is to prevent food and saliva from entering the larynx during swallowing.
Laryngitis (larynx + itis = inflammation) is an inflammation of the voice box, causing a person to lose their voice.
The quality of the voice becomes hoarse or gravelly-sounding and sometimes too quiet or soft to hear. Because there is inflammation, throat pain is often an associated symptom.
What other symptoms might occur with loss of voice?
Loss of voice may accompany other symptoms, which will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the voice may also involve other body systems.
Inflammatory symptoms that may occur along with loss of voice
Loss of voice may accompany other symptoms related to inflammation including:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Sore throat
Other symptoms that may occur along with loss of voice
Loss of voice may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Such symptoms include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of vision or changes in vision
- Numbness on one side of the body
- Swelling or lump in throat
- Tight feeling in throat
- Weakness on one side of the body
What causes loss of voice?
Loss of voice is the inability of the vocal cords to function properly. The most common causes are due to inflammation and infection and a result of swelling of the vocal folds, which prevents proper vibration needed to speak. Other causes include nervous system disorders and obstruction within the vocal cord region.
Obstructions can be benign or malignant occurring within different locations, such as the thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, throat, and larynx.
What are the potential complications of loss of voice?
Because loss of voice can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage.
Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Adverse effects of treatment for loss of voice
- Permanent loss of voice
- Progressive neurologic decline
- Spread of cancer
Is laryngitis contagious?
Laryngitis is only contagious if it is caused by an infection. Laryngitis, upper respiratory infections, and colds are commonly a viral infection spread by aerosol droplets.
Disease transmission can be minimized or prevented by covering the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing, and proper hygiene habits (wash your hands often, don’t share food utensils, wipe down door handles).
How is laryngitis diagnosed?
The health care professional often can make the diagnosis of laryngitis quickly at the doctor’s office. The history of upper respiratory tract infection associated with loss of voice is reinforced by the patient answering questions in a hoarse voice.
The examination is often brief and limited to the ears, nose, and throat, looking for other potential causes of the cold-like symptoms.
If the throat is red and there is a concern about a streptococcal throat infection (strep throat) in addition to the laryngitis, a throat swab for a rapid strep test.
If the hoarse voice becomes chronic, the health care professional may want to take a more detailed history, trying to learn why the larynx has become inflamed for a prolonged period of time.
What is the treatment for laryngitis?
As with any other structure in the body that becomes inflamed, rest is the key to recovery. For laryngitis, this means resting the voice and limiting the amount of talking.
If talking is required, the affected individual should avoid whispering and instead talk in a regular voice, regardless of how it sounds.
Whispering requires the vocal cords to be stretched tightly and requires more work by the surrounding muscles and delays recovery time.