The most noticeable symptoms are the loss of voice or hoarseness. The throat may also be raw or tickle, and those with laryngitis often feel an urge to clear their throats.
The common cold and other viral infections of the upper airways are the most common causes of laryngitis. Laryngitis may also accompany the flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, measles, whooping cough, or any infection of the upper airways. As any opera singer will tell you, excessive use of the voice, exposure to tobacco smoke, even allergic reactions, can bring it on, too.
What's the physical cause of all those bad vibrations? For you to sound like you, the air you exhale through your larynx—that voice box commonly known as your Adam's apple—has to vibrate through your vocal cords in just the right way. When the cords are scarred or swollen, they don't create the right shaped "container" for that air. That allows breath to escape.
Even a slight change in the vocal cords can render a person's voice unrecognizable. The vocal cords contain a central muscle bundle, various layers of connective tissue, and a skinlike covering called the mucosa. "An alteration in any one of these layers can disrupt the optimal vibration through the tissue," says Scott Kessler, M.D.
If your timbre is now as deep and croaky as Lauren Bacall's, follow these tips to recover your true voice.
If your voice loss is accompanied by pain so severe that you have trouble swallowing your own saliva, see a physician immediately, says George T. Simpson II, M.D. Swelling in the upper part of your larynx may be blocking your airway.
You should also contact your physician if you find yourself coughing up blood, hear noises in your throat when you breathe, or find that continued voice rest does nothing to alleviate your hoarseness. When laryngitis persists, it may signal the presence of a throat tumor. In any case, consult your doctor if your voice doesn't return to normal within 3 to 5 days.
Robert Feder, M.D., was a former professor of drama and a former professor of otolaryngology at UCLA.
Scott Kessler, M.D., is a New York City otolaryngologist specializing in performing-arts medicine. He is the physician for many of the performers at the Metropolitan Opera and the City Opera, as well as for cast members of Broadway plays and cabarets, and for recording artists, such as Madonna and Mick Jagger. Dr. Kessler is also on the staffs of Mount Sinai and Beth Israel Hospitals in New York City.
Laurence Levine, M.D., D.D.S., is an associate clinical professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and an otolaryngologist in Creve Coeur and St. Charles, Missouri.
George T. Simpson II, M.D., was chairman of the department of otolaryngology at Boston University School of Medicine, University Hospital, and Boston City Hospital. He was also a member of the scientific advisory committee for the Voice Foundation.