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What Causes a Swollen Epiglottis?

By H. Lo
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Swollen epiglottis is primarily caused by bacterial, fungal or viral infection. It can also occur as a result of injury due to heat, the swallowing of a foreign object or physical damage to the epiglottis. This is a life-threatening medical condition that requires immediate attention. The epiglottis is a piece of cartilage behind the tongue that covers the larynx to protect the trachea, or windpipe, when a person swallows; this is to prevent foods or liquids from entering the windpipe, which can cause a person to choke. Just as choking can interfere with a person’s ability to breathe, so can a swollen epiglottis, since both conditions block the airway.

The primary bacterial source of swollen epiglottis is the haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) bacteria, which is an organism also responsible for other illnesses such as upper respiratory tract infection and meningitis. In the United States, the Hib vaccine became routine in the late 1980s, which resulted in swelling of the epiglottis becoming an uncommon illness. Still, this vaccine does not protect individuals from other infectious sources that might cause the condition to develop. Other infections sources include streptococcus pneumonia, streptococcus A, B and C, and varicella zoster. These organisms also have the capability to cause pneumonia, strep throat and chicken pox, respectively.

Damage to the epiglottis sustained through various types of injuries can also lead to swollen epiglottis. Heat damage can occur through swallowing contents that burn the throat such as hot liquids. Using illicit drugs can also cause burning in the throat; in addition, the act can cause a person to swallow foreign objects such as parts of pipes that are utilized in drug use. In addition, a person that suffers direct physical contact with the cartilage or surrounding areas of the throat can also injure and swell the epiglottis.

Swollen epiglottis can be contagious and affects both children and adults. The illness might develop within hours or over a couple of days. Common symptoms are fever, sore throat and voice changes. Swallowing can become difficult and so painful that a person begins to drool. Breathing also becomes difficult, and a person might feel better by sitting up and leaning forward.

Usually, if a person with swollen epiglottis receives immediate and proper hospital care, the outcome is positive. In addition to healing the infection, treatment typically requires a doctor to ensure that the affected person is able to breathe. The ability to breathe might be solved through the use of humidified oxygen or a breathing tube. Antibiotics and corticosteroids might be used to heal the infection and reduce the swelling.

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Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Aug 22, 2013

@turkay1-- Well, they're two different things. Epiglottis is different and uvula is different. Uvula is the thing that hangs down in the back of the throat.

The cause of both may be the same though. When my daughter had acute epiglottis, she also had a swollen throat and uvula. Infections can affect both. But a swollen epiglottis is much more dangerous than a swollen uvula. A swollen uvula doesn't prevent breathing, it might cause irritation but that's it.

By candyquilt — On Aug 21, 2013

What's the difference between a swollen epiglottis and a swollen uvula?

By burcinc — On Aug 20, 2013

I don't think that epiglottitis is contagious. If it's caused by an infection, the bacteria or virus causing the infection can be contagious. But even then, this doesn't mean that this infection is going to lead to a swollen epiglottis in everyone.

From what I understand, epiglottitis is a result of, or a complication of infection.

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