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 the 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, call for emergency medical services right away.
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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.
This condition is more common in:
- Infants younger than 2 months who are too young to receive vaccines
- Children aged 3-7 living in countries that do not offer vaccines
- People of African American and Hispanic descent
Other factors that may increase your risk include:
- Living in close quarters
- Attending day care, being in school, or working in an office
- Season—more common in winter
Symptoms may include:
- Fever over 103 °F (degrees Fahrenheit) / (38.9 °C)
- Sore throat and severe throat pain
- Difficulty swallowing with drooling
- Muffled voice
- Rapid breathing
- Increasingly difficult breathing
- Leaning forward and arching the neck backward to breathe
- Squeaky or raspy sounds while inhaling, caused by airway blockage
Symptoms associated with low oxygen levels:
- Bluish tint to skin or lips
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, you will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. If you are not having trouble breathing, a mirror may be used to look down your throat.
Your bodily fluids and cells may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood culture and count
- Throat culture
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
- Neck x-ray
The doctor will first stabilize your airway. The cause of epiglottits will also need to be treated.
If you CAN breathe, you will be closely monitored in the intensive care unit.
If you CANNOT breathe, the options include:
- Endotracheal intubation—A breathing tube is inserted through the nose or mouth and fed into the airway. This can only be done if the airway is not swollen shut. It should be done by an experienced physician.
- Tracheotomy—A breathing tube is inserted directly into the airway. This is done if the airway is swollen shut or if the airway is too swollen to do an endotracheal intubation.
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 until the exact bacteria can be identified. At that time, antibiotics may be changed.
After swelling decreases, the breathing tube can be removed. Usually, there are not any lasting side effects of epiglottitis, and the outlook is good.
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 2 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.
A preventive antibiotic may be prescribed to household members, daycare staff, and others who were exposed to the infected person.
American College of Emergency Physicians
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Public Health Agency of Canada
Acute epiglottitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115468/Acute-epiglottitis. Updated February 10, 2015. Accessed August 14, 2017.
Haemophilus influenzae disease (including Hib). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hi-disease/index.html. Updated July 25, 2016. Accessed August 14, 2017.
Sack JL, Brock CD. Identifying acute epiglottitis in adults. High degree of awareness, close monitoring are key. Postgrad Med. 2002;112(1):81-82, 85-86.
Last reviewed September 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 8/4/2020