When the vocal cords vibrate, they produce sound. When the vocal cords are swollen, inflamed, or irritated, they do not vibrate properly, resulting in hoarseness.
To determine the cause of hoarseness, a healthcare provider may perform a physical examination of the throat, ask about the patient's medical history and voice use habits, and may use diagnostic tools like laryngoscopy, a procedure using a flexible or rigid scope to examine the vocal cords, or imaging studies if necessary.
There are a number of causes of hoarseness, including:
Upper respiratory infections: Colds, the flu, and other upper respiratory infections can cause inflammation of the vocal cords, leading to hoarseness.
Laryngitis: Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx. It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection, vocal overuse, or irritation from smoke or dust.
Vocal overuse: Overusing the voice, such as by shouting, singing, or talking loudly for long periods of time, can strain the vocal cords and cause hoarseness.
Smoking and secondhand smoke: Smoking and secondhand smoke can irritate the vocal cords and cause hoarseness.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): GERD is a condition in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. This acid can irritate the vocal cords and cause hoarseness.
Allergic rhinitis: Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, can cause inflammation of the nose and throat, irritate the vocal cords, and cause hoarseness. Read more about allergic rhinitis here.
Neurological disorders: Neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease and stroke, can damage the nerves that control the vocal cords, leading to hoarseness.
Tumors: In rare cases, hoarseness can be caused by a tumor in the larynx.
Most cases of hoarseness are temporary and resolve on their own within a few weeks. However, if hoarseness persists for more than two weeks, it is important to see a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
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Hoarseness is the primary symptom, but other associated symptoms may include a sore throat, coughing, a sensation of something stuck in the throat (globus sensation), and difficulty in speaking or singing.
Treatment of hoarseness depends on the underlying cause.
For temporary hoarseness due to viral infections or overuse, rest and hydration may be sufficient.
If hoarseness is due to vocal cord nodules, polyps, or other structural issues, voice therapy or surgery may be recommended. Learn more about vocal cord nodules here.
GERD-related hoarseness may be managed with lifestyle modifications and medications to reduce acid reflux.
Smoking cessation is advised for individuals who smoke and experience hoarseness.
In cases of laryngeal cancer, treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these approaches.
Avoiding smoking and exposure to irritants can help prevent hoarseness. Practicing good vocal hygiene, such as staying hydrated, avoiding excessive shouting or screaming, and resting the voice when necessary, can also reduce the risk of hoarseness.