What is epiglottitis?

Epiglottitis is inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, the thin cartilage structure at the root of the tongue that closes off the windpipe (trachea) when foods or liquids are being swallowed.

Who is affected by epiglottitis?

Epiglottitis can affect people of any age. It affects males more than females at a rate of 2.5 to 1.

Before the widespread use of Hib vaccinations in 1985, the disease was seen mainly in children between 3 and 5 years of age. By the year 2000, the annual incidence of invasive Hib infection in children younger than 5 years decreased 99 percent to less than 1 case per 100,000.

What are the symptoms of epiglottitis?

Symptoms usually appear and get worse quickly, although the progression of symptoms in older children and adults may take a few days to fully develop. The most common symptoms are:

  • Severe sore throat
  • Difficulty and pain when swallowing (a main symptom in older children and adults)
  • Difficulty breathing (a main symptom in children), which may be helped by sitting up and leaning forward, or breathing with an open mouth and protruding tongue
  • Abnormal or high-pitched breathing noises (a main symptom in children), which is often related to a blockage in the airway
  • Hoarse or muffled voice
  • Fever of 100.4 F or higher
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Drooling (a main symptom in older children and adults)

What causes epiglottitis?

Epiglottitis is usually caused by an infection from Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) bacteria, the same bacteria that cause pneumonia and meningitis.

Transmission of the bacteria is the same as with the common cold: Droplets of saliva or mucus are spread into the air when a carrier of the bacteria coughs or sneezes. Another person is infected by breathing in or coming into contact with a surface where the bacteria have landed.

Other possible causes include:

  • Bacterial infections from non-Hib sources, such as those from streptococcus pneumonia
  • Fungal infections, particularly in people with a weak immune system
  • Viral infections from varicella zoster virus (which causes chickenpox) or herpes simplex virus (which causes cold sores)
  • Injury to the throat, either through a physical blow or by drinking a very hot liquid
  • Smoking, especially marijuana, crack cocaine or other illegal drugs
  • Chemical burns
  • Side effect of another disease or chemotherapy

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