Hoarseness refers to abnormal changes in the voice. When a person's voice becomes hoarse, it may sound raspy, scratchy or husky. Hoarseness is usually caused by a swelling of the vocal cords, which are part of the voice box, or larynx, in the throat. Hoarseness may occur in anyone, including children.
Hoarseness is generally a symptom of an underlying condition and not actually a disease itself. Fortunately, hoarseness does not usually last long, nor is it typically a sign of a serious condition. Most cases of hoarseness can be treated at home. However, if hoarseness lasts for longer than two weeks, it may be necessary to visit a doctor since persistent hoarseness is sometimes considered a warning sign of throat or laryngeal cancer.
Symptoms of Hoarseness
Hoarseness is usually characterized by the voice developing a raspy, weakened or harsh quality, as well as noticeable changes to the pitch or volume of the voice. In very young children, hoarseness is often accompanied by drooling. Because hoarseness is considered a symptom of another condition, patients may need to undergo an examination to determine what exactly is causing the hoarseness.
Causes of Hoarseness
Hoarseness may result when the vocal cords have become infected or develop inflammation as they tend to swell. Hoarseness most commonly occurs following a cold or sinus infection.
Some of the most common causes of hoarseness include:
- Heavy smoking or drinking, especially the two in combination
- Thyroid problems, including an underactive thyroid gland
- Exposure to second-hand smoke
- Lung or throat cancer
- Inhalation of an irritating substance
- Chronic coughing
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- Upper respiratory infection
- Overuse of the voice, as in shouting or singing
- Injury or irritation from a breathing tube, or bronchoscope
- Damage to the nerves or muscles around the larynx
- Presence of a foreign object or substance in the esophagus or trachea
- Ingesting a harmful or irritating substance
- Benign growths, or polyps, on the vocal cords
Diagnosis of Hoarseness
Patients who are experiencing hoarseness may need to consult a doctor if the condition lasts for longer than 2 weeks. It is usually recommended that a patient consult an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and managing diseases of the ears, nose, throat, mouth and sinuses. An otolaryngologist has specialty training that helps to determine the reason behind a patient's hoarseness, as well as rule out other potential causes of the condition.
A physical examination and review of the patient's medical history will be conducted to evaluate the condition and discover the cause of the hoarseness. The examination focuses on the head and the neck and may include such tests as a throat culture, laryngoscopy or X-rays. During the examination, a direct visualization of the vocal cords will take place.
Treatment for Hoarseness
In most cases, hoarseness is only temporary and may be treated with at-home care. Further treatment may be necessary for patients who have longer term cases of hoarseness. Usually, the methods of treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the hoarseness.
Treatments may include:
- Using a vaporizer to keep the airways moist
- Resting the voice
- Speaking only when needed
- Avoiding actions that place extra strain on the vocal cords such as singing, shouting, whispering or crying
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Refraining from cigarette smoking and limiting exposure to second-hand smoke
If growths or polyps are discovered on a patient's vocal cords, surgery may be necessary to remove them. Additionally, if the presence of lung or throat cancer is detected, further treatment will be required.
Prevention of Hoarseness
There are many ways to prevent mild cases of hoarseness, including:
- Hydrating the body by drinking eight glasses of water and other fluids each day
- Avoiding beverages that dehydrate the body, such as those containing caffeine or alcohol
- Quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to second-hand smoke
- Maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding spicy foods
- Attempting not to overuse the voice or place strain on the vocal cords