by Jen Rymaruk
Epiglottitis is severe swelling of the epiglottis. The epiglottis is a flap-like tissue located in the throat. During swallowing, the epiglottis folds over the windpipe and vocal chords to prevent food and liquids from entering the lungs. Swelling can quickly seal off a person’s airway and make breathing difficult.
Epiglottitis is rare and requires immediate medical attention. If you think you, your child, or someone you know has epiglottitis, go to the emergency room right away.
Factors that can cause epiglottitis include:
Epiglottitis spreads easily. It is passed much like the common cold, through droplets released when sneezing and coughing. Anyone can develop epiglottitis. The following factors can increase a person’s risk:
Epiglottitis is a rare disease. If you or your child experiences any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to epiglottitis. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions.
Symptoms appear suddenly and worsen quickly.
Note: Do not attempt to use a tongue depressor or any other utensil to look into the person’s throat. A throat spasm could occur and cause the airway to close completely.
When you arrive at the hospital, the doctor will first make sure you are able to breathe. After this is known, the doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. If you are not having trouble breathing, the doctor may use a mirror to look down your throat.
You may have the following tests done:
The doctor will first stabilize your airway and then give proper medication depending on the cause. You may also have other illnesses that need to be treated depending on the cause of the epiglottitis such as blood infections due to Streptococcus.
If you CAN breathe, you will be closely monitored in the intensive care unit.
If you CANNOT breathe, the options include:
After the airway is stabilized, you will be monitored and started on IV antibiotics. Antibiotics help kill the organism causing the infection and swelling. At first, a variety of antibiotics may be given if the identity of the germ is not yet known. After the laboratory test results are known, a specific antibiotic can be given.
After swelling decreases, the breathing tube can be removed. Usually, there are not any lasting side effects of epiglottitis, and the outlook is good.
If you are diagnosed with epiglottitis, follow your doctor's instructions.
Vaccination with the Hib vaccine is the only way to prevent epiglottitis. Currently, infants born in the US are given one of these vaccines at two months of age. Since vaccination began, adults have been at even lower risk of developing epiglottitis. If you have a weak immune system or are on medications that may make you more prone to illness, speak with your doctor about getting vaccinated.
An preventive antibiotic may be prescribed for:
American College of Emergency Physicians
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Canadian Immunization Guide
Acute epiglottitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated June 15, 2011. Accessed February 12, 2013.
Haemophilus influenzae disease (including Hib). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/hi-disease/index.html . Updated September 25, 2012. Accessed February 12, 2013.
Sack JL, Brock CD. Identifying acute epiglottitis in adults. Postgraduate Medicine. 2002;112(1).
Last reviewed March 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 03/15/2013