'Tis the season, as they say. Not the holiday season, but the cold and flu season, and with these upper respiratory infections comes muscle aches and pains, fatigue, sneezing, coughing and often laryngitis.
Laryngitis is an inflammation of the vocal folds. It is very debilitating due to its ability to render a person unable to communicate at work or in social situations. It is most often caused by any of the following:
- Infection (usually viral, upper respiratory)
- Irritation caused by vocally abusive behaviors
Laryngitis is usually categorized as either acute or chronic. Acute laryngitis comes on quickly and lasts less than two weeks. Chronic laryngitis is less common, lasts longer than two weeks and may be indicative of a more serious medical problem.
The good news is that acute laryngitis will generally resolve on its own. In the meantime, though, there are many steps a person can take to help ease the symptoms. Follow these simple dos and don'ts:
- Drink plenty of water
- Use the voice as little as possible
- Use a humidifier
- Use throat lozenges (not mentholated)
- Avoid alcohol intake, caffeine intake and smoking
- Clear your throat
- Overuse your voice or yell
In addition to weather-related illness, laryngitis is often a result of vocal abuse during sporting events and other fan-based activities. With March Madness (the annual college basketball tournament) approaching and the NASCAR racing season opening, many sports fans will want to keep the following things in mind while cheering on their favorite teams and drivers:
- Avoid prolonged shouting or screaming. If you feel tension in your throat, neck and shoulders, you are too loud.
- Take plenty of slow, deep breaths while speaking, and try to speak more slowly.
- Keep heartburn symptoms under control. Watch what you eat, and make sure you take any medications appropriately. A sour taste in the mouth can indicate that stomach acids have risen to the level of the larynx and may irritate the vocal folds.
- If you feel any vocal strain, immediately discontinue the vocally abusive behaviors and take it easy on your voice.
- Drink plenty of water, avoid clearing your throat and whispering, and keep alcohol and caffeine intake to a minimum.
Laryngitis sufferers should know that if symptoms persist more than two weeks, they should seek professional help for the voice dysfunction by following these steps:
- See your primary care physician
- Obtain a referral, as needed, to an otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose and Throat specialist)
- The otolaryngologist will examine your vocal folds and determine if they are healthy and/or functioning normally. Examination may include endoscopic evaluation using a flexible fiberoptic tube and/or video stroboscopy. These exams are generally painless.
- Expect a referral to a speech-language pathologist for vocal rehabilitation. The duration and effectiveness of therapy will depend on a number of factors, including the severity of the problem and the patient's commitment to the treatment plan.
In the case of laryngitis, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Remember, a healthy, well-rested and well-hydrated person is definitely less likely to get laryngitis. Enjoy this season and all the fun it brings, and make sure your favorite teams will always be able to hear you cheer them on.
Elana K. Thompson, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at Mount Nittany Medical Center.