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Definition and facts about epiglottitis

  • Epiglottitis is a potentially fatal medical emergency that occurs when the flap of tissue that covers the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing becomes infected or inflamed, resulting in swelling and obstruction that can close off the windpipe.
  • Epiglottitis may be caused by infection (such as with bacteria, viruses, or fungi), environmental agents (such as chemicals or heat damage), allergic reactions, or trauma to the neck or throat.
  • Symptoms of epiglottitis include
    • sore throat,
    • muffling or changes in the voice,
    • difficulty speaking,
    • fever,
    • difficulty swallowing,
    • fast heart rate, and
    • difficulty breathing.
  • A person with acute epiglottitis usually looks very ill.
  • Epiglottitis is a medical emergency and anyone suspected of having epiglottitis should be taken to a hospital's emergency department immediately.
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (H. influenza), is a common bacteria that can cause epiglottitis, and is contagious. The Hib vaccine protects most children against these bacteria.
  • Epiglottitis is not always easy to diagnose and because it is so rare, it is commonly misdiagnosed as strep throat or croup. Tests for epiglottitis may include X-rays, laryngoscopy, blood tests, arterial blood gas, and blood cultures.
  • Whenever epiglottitis is suspected, immediate hospitalization is required. Antibiotics may be prescribed. Initial treatment may consist of close monitoring along with humidified oxygen and IV fluids, along with making a person comfortable and minimizing anxiety, which can cause the throat to close up. IV antibiotics may be prescribed to clear infection and control inflammation in the body.
  • If there are signs of airway obstruction due to epiglottitis, treatment requires laryngoscopy in an operating room. In severe cases, a cricothyrotomy (cutting the neck to insert a breathing tube directly into the windpipe) may be performed.
  • Epiglottitis may be prevented with childhood vaccination against H. influenza type b (Hib). For people who live with an unvaccinated child under age 4 years of age who is exposed to a person with H. influenza epiglottitis, preventive medication such as rifampin (Rifadin) is given to all household contacts to prevent the spread of the bacteria.
  • The prognosis for epiglottitis is good if the condition is caught early and treated in time. Most people with epiglottitis recover without problems. However, when epiglottitis is not diagnosed and treated early or properly, the prognosis is poor, and the condition can be fatal.
  • Epiglottitis also can occur with other infections in adults, such as pneumonia. Most commonly, it is misdiagnosed as a strep throat or croup.
  • In the July 2016, comedian and actor Sarah Silverman, made headlines when she was hospitalized for a case of epiglottitis.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/20/2017
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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Sore Throat?

Symptoms of sore throat from either a viral or bacterial infection can be generalized symptoms that occur throughout the body such as fever, headache, nausea, and malaise. Signs of sore throat include:

  • Pus on the surface of the tonsils can occur with bacteria or viruses
  • Tender and swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Drooling or spitting because swallowing is so painful
  • Difficulty breathing, especially inhaling
  • Bubbles of fluid on a red base in the oral cavity (may indicate the presence of coxsackie virus or herpes simplex virus)

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Epiglottitis »

Epiglottitis, also termed supraglottitis or epiglottiditis, is an inflammation of structures above the insertion of the glottis.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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