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What are the Symptoms of Throat Polyps?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The symptoms of throat polyps, which are also sometimes called “vocal cord nodules,” include a hoarse, husky voice and scratchiness when breathing and speaking. The condition rarely causes any pain aside from a sometimes sore throat, and people often mistakenly think they have laryngitis or seasonal allergies until they receive a diagnosis of polyps from their doctor or care provider. In most cases, the more polyps a person has — or the larger the growths get — the more intensive the symptoms become. Shooting ear pain and sinus pressure are two of the more extreme symptoms, and fatigue and general weakness can also result. In most cases, as soon as the polyps are removed or shrink away, the symptoms will disappear.

Voice Changes

One of the first things people with throat polyps notice is that their voice becomes hoarse and deep. It can be hard to speak loudly, for instance, and people often say that their tone has a breathy, raspy quality. Singers often find that their range shrinks a little bit, too, and they may not be able to hit notes as high or as low as they used to. The change is normally gradual, which can make it difficult for people to pinpoint exactly when it began.

Throat Scratchiness

People with throat polyps frequently also complain of a scratchy soreness that doesn’t seem to go away. In most cases this is more of an annoyance than a real problem, but it is usually noticeable. Smoking or spending time in smoky environments can make these symptoms worse, as can talking, singing, or otherwise using the voice for long periods of time.

Ear Pain

In extreme cases — that is, in cases where polyps have grown very large or occur in wide groupings — patients may experience a sharp shooting pain that seems to go from ear to ear. The nerve connections in the ears, nose, and throat are very closely connected, and in most cases there isn’t actually anything wrong with the ears at all; pain is felt here, though, because of the way the nerves cross. Pressure in the sinuses may happen for the same reasons.

Fatigue

Exhaustion and fatigue is rarer, but have been documented in some cases. Fatigue often starts with the voice; lecturers and singers in particular usually find that they aren’t able to deliver talks or concerts for as long without experiencing cracks or breaks in their voice. It can spread to the body generally, too. People suffering from this symptom often feel weak in most of their major muscles, and often have difficulty doing many physical activities.

Why Polyps Develop

Polyps are fleshy lumps which grow on the surface of the mucus membranes in the throat and on the vocal cords and the layer of tissue surrounding them. They are usually caused by vocal cord strain over time. People who use their voices as part of their jobs are often at particular risk, but so are smokers and those who use oral tobacco products, which can weaken the throat muscles. Persistent allergies or respiratory problems like asthma can make the condition more likely, too. The growths can also develop after single traumatic events, like accidents or spontaneous injury to the throat; in these cases, the polyps often form as the tissues are healing.

Small throat polyps may never be noticed at all. Sometimes they fall off all on their own and then exit the body through the digestive tract. Unlike polyps found in the colon, throat growths don’t necessarily mean that someone is at a high risk of cancer. Risk factors for polyps may be similar to those which cause cancer, however, such as cigarette smoke or excessive alcohol consumption, and the symptoms are usually really similar. For this reason, people who notice changes in their voices that don’t go away on their own are usually advised to get a medical evaluation.

Treatment Options

Vocal cord nodules can usually be treated in one of three ways: through behavior modification, through drugs and medication, and through surgical removal. Behavioral fixes usually involve removing vocal cord stressors and limiting straining uses of the voice. Sometimes simply giving the cords time to heal and rest is all that is needed for the polyps to shrink or go away on their own.

Medical interventions typically seek to heal throat problems, particularly those caused by acid reflux or torn tissues. Anti-inflammatory drugs can also sometimes be used if polyps are causing swelling. In cases where the growths are really interfering with a patient’s life, surgery may be the best way forward; in these cases, the growths are removed either by scraping or snipping them from the surface of the vocal cords. Surgery is generally considered something of a last resort and isn’t usually performed unless absolutely necessary. The risks and possible complications usually aren’t worth the benefits otherwise.

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