Epiglottitis refers to inflammation and swelling of your epiglottis. The most common cause is bacterial infection. Epiglottitis symptoms include pain when swallowing, severe sore throat and difficulty breathing. Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. It’s important to seek treatment immediately if you develop symptoms.
Epiglottitis is inflammation and swelling of your epiglottis. Your epiglottis is a thin flap of cartilage near the base of your tongue. It keeps food and liquids from going down your windpipe (trachea) when you swallow.
You may also hear the term “acute epiglottitis.” This refers to the very sudden and intense onset of symptoms, including difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Epiglottitis can affect people of any age. It affects men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) more than women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) at a rate of 2.5 to 1.
Before the widespread use of Hib vaccinations in 1985, epiglottitis mainly affected children between the ages of 3 and 5. By the year 2000, the annual incidence of invasive Hib infection, a primary cause of epiglottitis, in children ages 3 to 5 decreased 99%, to less than 1 case out of every 100,000.
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Epiglottitis symptoms usually appear suddenly and get worse quickly. Sometimes, in older children and adults, it may take a few days for symptoms to fully develop. The most common epiglottitis symptoms include:
Healthcare providers sometimes refer to the most common epiglottitis symptoms as “the four Ds”:
Other possible epiglottitis causes include:
It can be. If epiglottitis is the result of a bacterial, fungal or viral infection, then it can spread from person to person through droplets of saliva or mucus. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets move through the air. If another person breathes in those droplets, or comes into contact with a surface where the germs have landed, they can also develop an infection.
People who develop epiglottitis from injury or from smoking can’t pass the condition to others.
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination and ask about your symptoms. They may also request certain tests that can help diagnose epiglottitis.
These tests may include:
Epiglottitis often shares a number of common symptoms with other conditions, such as croup. As a result, proper diagnosis and treatment are key.
Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. If you or someone you know exhibits epiglottitis symptoms — such as difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness or drooling — call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room.
At the hospital, healthcare providers will begin epiglottitis treatment:
For most people, it takes about one week to fully recover from epiglottitis. You’ll probably spend between five and seven days in the hospital.
While you can’t prevent epiglottitis altogether, there are things you can do to significantly reduce your risk:
Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. But when addressed quickly, treatment is typically successful. Most people recover in about a week.
Rarely, epiglottitis can be fatal. Fewer than 1 in 100 cases of epiglottitis result in death.
Epiglottitis can be life-threatening if swelling closes off air passages to your lungs. If you think you or someone you know might have epiglottitis, call 911.
You should never put anyone with epiglottitis on their back or allow them to have anything in their mouth. Try to remain calm, as stress can worsen the tightening of someone’s throat.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Epiglottitis, or inflammation of your epiglottis, can result in several serious symptoms, including difficulty breathing and swallowing. It’s a medical emergency. If you or someone you know exhibits epiglottitis symptoms, call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room immediately. With prompt and proper care, epiglottitis treatment is usually successful. Most people recover quickly and can go home from the hospital within one week.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/01/2022.
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