Hoarseness

A man feeling his neck near his vocal cords, a common factor in hoarseness

What is hoarseness?

Hoarseness refers to uncharacteristic voice changes and sufferers might have difficulty speaking. Vocal sounds may be strained, muffled, raspy, or croaky, and the voice’s pitch or quality may change. It’s almost always caused by a problem in the vocal cords, which are part of the larynx (voice box) and are located in the throat.

There are two types of hoarseness:

  • Acute: short-term (usually caused by conditions such as a cold)
  • Chronic: long-term (potentially caused by more serious conditions)

Prognosis

Depending on each individual case, the prognosis of the disease may vary. Hoarseness is not a serious disease as it usually lasts for about two weeks and the symptoms disappear completely. On the other hand, chronic hoarseness can be a symptom of a serious condition such as throat/laryngeal cancer and thyroid cancer.

Symptoms of hoarseness

The most common symptoms of hoarseness are difficulty breathing or swallowing (dysphagia) and excessive drooling, especially in children. Other symptoms are having a harsh sounding voice, a scratchy throat and a lowered tone of voice.

Medical tests to diagnose hoarseness

The specialist may

  • Perform a laryngoscopy
  • Take a throat culture
  • Exam the throat with a small mirror
  • Perform a CT scan
  • Provide an x-ray of the neck
  • Conduct blood tests to run a complete blood count

What are the causes?

The most common cause is inflammation or infection of the vocal cords due to a cold or sinus infection, which often clears up after about two weeks. Another of the most serious causes is laryngeal cancer.

Other common causes can be:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Allergies
  • Inhalation of irritating substances
  • Throat or larynx cancer
  • Chronic cough
  • Colds or respiratory tract infections
  • Tobacco and alcohol
  • Voice overload or abuse like yelling or singing

Other causes that can also cause hoarseness and are less common:

  • Injury or irritation from a bronchoscopy or breathing tube
  • Damage to the nerves and muscles around the larynx from trauma or surgery
  • The appearance of foreign bodies in the oesophagus or trachea
  • Changes in the larynx during puberty
  • Lung or thyroid cancer
  • Hypothyroidism

Can it be prevented?

There are a few measures that can help prevent a hoarse voice:

  • Drink a lot of liquid to help maintain humidity in the airways
  • Avoid actions that fatigue the vocal cords such as whispering, shouting, crying or singing
  • Take medications to reduce stomach acid and avoid those that dry out the vocal cords
  • Reduce or stop your tobacco consumption

Treatments for hoarseness

If the patient has difficulty breathing or swallowing, is drooling, or the hoarseness has lasted more than three weeks, it’s necessary to go to a specialist for a diagnosis.

As mentioned above, hoarseness can have multiple causes, and so the course of treatment will depend on each case.

Which type of specialist treats hoarseness?

Otolaryngologists (ENTs) are experts of the ear, nose and throat. They the specialists who can make a diagnosis and provide a treatment plan for hoarseness.