Epiglottitis is inflammation of the epiglottis. This is the tissue that covers the trachea (windpipe). Epiglottitis is a life-threatening disease.
The epiglottis is a stiff, yet flexible tissue (called cartilage) at the back of the tongue. It closes your windpipe (trachea) when you swallow so food does not enter your airway. This helps prevent coughing or choking after swallowing.
In children, epiglottitis is usually caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae (H. influenzae) type B. In adults, it is often due to other bacteria such as Strepcoccus pneumoniae, or viruses such as herpes simplex virus and varicella-zoster.
Epiglottitis is now very uncommon because the H. influenzae type B (Hib) vaccine is given routinely to all children. The disease was once most often seen in children ages 2 through 6. In rare cases, epiglottitis can occur in adults.
Epiglottitis begins with a high fever and sore throat. Other symptoms may include:
- Abnormal breathing sounds (stridor)
- Blue skin color (cyanosis)
- Difficulty breathing (the person may need to sit upright and lean slightly forward to breathe)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Voice changes (hoarseness)
The airways can become totally blocked, which can result in cardiac arrest and death.
Exams and Tests
Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. Seek medical help right away. Do not use anything to press the tongue down to try to look at the throat at home. Doing so may make the condition worse.
The health care provider may examine the voice box (larynx) using a small mirror held against the back of the throat. Or a viewing tube called a laryngoscope may be used. This examination is best done in the operating room or a similar setting where sudden breathing problems can be more easily handled.
Tests that may be done include:
A hospital stay is needed, usually in the intensive care unit (ICU).
Treatment involves methods to help the person breathe, including:
- Breathing tube (intubation)
- Moistened (humidified) oxygen
Other treatments may include:
- Antibiotics to treat the infection
- Anti-inflammatory medicines, called corticosteroids, to decrease throat swelling
- Fluids given through a vein (by IV)
Epiglottitis can be a life-threatening emergency. With proper treatment, the outcome is usually good.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Spasm may cause the airways to close suddenly. Or, the airways may become totally blocked. Either of these situations could result in death.
The Hib vaccine protects most children from epiglottitis.
The most common bacteria (H. influenza type b) that causes epiglottitis is easily spread. If someone in your family is sick from this bacteria, other family members need to be tested and treated.
Nayak JL, Weinberg GA. Epiglottitis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 64.
Roosevelt GE. Acute inflammatory upper airway obstruction (croup, epiglottitis, laryngitis, and bacterial tracheitis). In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 385.
Reviewed By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.