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Epiglottitis

Definition

Epiglottitis is inflammation of the cartilage that covers the trachea (windpipe).

See also: Croup

Alternative Names

Supraglottitis

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Epiglottitis is a life-threatening disease. The epiglottis is a piece of cartilage at the back of the tongue. Its job is to close off the windpipe when swallowing. It keeps food from entering the airways, so you don't cough or choke after swallowing.

Epiglottitis is swelling of the epiglottis, which may block the windpipe and lead to breathing problems. Swelling of the epiglottis is usually caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae (H. influenzae), although it may also be caused by other bacteria or viruses that lead to upper respiratory infections.

Epiglottitis is now very uncommon, but it was most common in children ages 2 - 6. Rarely, epiglottitis can occur in adults, and it may be easily overlooked in such patients.

The occurrence of epiglottitis has decreased dramatically in the United States since the H. influenzae type B (Hib) vaccine became a routine childhood immunization in the late 1980s.

Symptoms

Epiglottitis begins with a high fever and sore throat. Other symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal breathing sounds (stridor)
  • Chills, shaking
  • Cyanosis (blue skin coloring)
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty breathing (patient may need to sit upright and lean slightly forward to breathe)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Voice changes (hoarseness)

Signs and tests

Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical help. Do not use a tongue depressor (tongue blade) to try to examine the throat at home, as this may make the condition worse.

The health care provider will examine the voice box (larynx) using either a small mirror held against the back of the throat or a viewing tube called a laryngoscope. (See: laryngoscopy) The exam may show a swollen and red epiglottis.

Tests used to diagnose epiglottitis may include:

Treatment

The patient will be admitted to the hospital, usually an intensive care unit (ICU).

Treatment may include methods to help the patient breathe, including:

  • Breathing tube (intubation)
  • Moistened (humidified) oxygen

Other treatments may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat the infection
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines called corticosteroids to decrease throat swelling
  • Fluids given through a vein (by IV)

Expectations (prognosis)

Epiglottitis can be a life-threatening emergency. However, with proper treatment, the outcome is usually good.

Complications

Spasm may cause the airways to close abruptly. In this case, death follows within minutes.

The airways may become totally blocked, which could result in death.

Calling your health care provider

Call the local emergency number (such as 911) if your child has symptoms of epiglottitis, including sudden breathing difficulties, excessive drooling, and irritability.

Prevention

Immunization with the Hib vaccine protects children from epiglottitis.

The bacterial infection that causes epiglottitis is contagious, so family members should be screened and treated if appropriate.

References

Sobol SE. Epiglottitis and croup. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2008;41(3):551-566.

Alcaide ML. Pharyngitis and epiglottitis. Infect Dis Clin North Am. 2007;21(2):449-469.


Review Date: 1/29/2010
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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