What is epiglottitis?
- Epiglottitis is a medical emergency that may result in death if not treated quickly. The epiglottis is a flap of tissue that sits at the base of the tongue that keeps food from going into the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing. When it becomes infected or inflamed, it can swell and obstruct or close off the windpipe, which may be fatal unless promptly treated.
- With continued inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, complete blockage of the airway may occur, leading to suffocation and death. Autopsies of people with epiglottitis have shown distortion of the epiglottis and its associated structures including the formation of abscesses (pockets of infection or pus). For unknown reasons, adults with epiglottic involvement are more likely than children to develop epiglottic abscesses.
- Epiglottitis was first described in the 18th century and was accurately defined by Le Mierre in 1936. Although George Washington's death in 1796 was attributed to quinsy (abscess), which is a pocket of pus behind the tonsils, it was actually due to epiglottitis.
What causes epiglottitis?
Conditions that cause epiglottitis include infectious, chemical, and traumatic agents. Infectious causes are the most common. H influenzae type b was once the most common cause prior to vaccination. Currently, other organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi are the more common causes, especially among adults.
- Organisms that can cause epiglottitis include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus parainfluenzae, varicella-zoster (shingles), herpes simplex virus type 1 (oral herpes), and Staphylococcus aureus, among others.
- Other types of epiglottitis that are environmental and not caused by infection include heat damage that may injure the epiglottis, called thermal epiglottitis. Thermal epiglottitis occurs from drinking hot liquids, eating solid foods, or using illicit drugs because of inhalation of metal pieces from
crack cocaine pipes or the tip of marijuana cigarettes. In these cases the epiglottitis from thermal injury is similar to the illness caused by infection.
- In very rare instances, epiglottitis may be caused by allergic reactions to food, insect stings or bites, or blunt trauma to the neck or throat.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/28/2016
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