Epiglottitis

What is Epiglottitis?

Epiglottitis causes inflamed tissue within the epiglottis, which is located at the base of your tongue and is responsible for preventing food from going down your windpipe.

This is a potentially life-threatening condition. When the epiglottis becomes inflamed, it can block the airway, so Epiglottitis should be treated right away.

The most common cause of this condition is a bacterial infection, and the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b is most often responsible. Therefore, receiving the Hib vaccine may protect children from contracting this bacteria and developing Epiglottitis as a result.

What are the Symptoms of Epiglottitis?

The initial symptoms associated with Epiglottitis are a sore throat and high fever. As the condition progresses, a patient’s airways could be completely blocked, resulting in cardiac arrest and death.

Other symptoms could include abnormal breathing sounds, difficulty breathing, blue skin color, difficulty swallowing, and changes in the voice.

Epiglottitis Causes

Epiglottitis is caused by an injury or an infection to the throat area.

Historically the most common cause of epiglottitis has been the Haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria (Hib). Most common in children under the age of five, Hib is passed on through respiratory droplets, such as by breathing them in after they have been coughed into the air, or via contact with a surface that these droplets have landed on.

In addition to Hib, there are some other bacteria and viruses that can cause epiglottitis.

In adults, other bacteria and viruses can cause inflammation of the epiglottis. These include several bacteria in the Streptococcus genus, including pneumoniae, group A, group B and group C.

Trauma to the throat area can also trigger epiglottitis. This can include a direct blow to the throat, drinking very hot fluids, swallowing a substance that can cause chemical burns, or smoking certain recreational drugs.

How is Epiglottitis Treated?

Treatment at a hospital will be necessary to resolve Epiglottitis. Patients usually have to be placed in the ICU (intensive care unit).

Treatment will focus upon helping the patient breathe, so a breathing tube and moistened oxygen will be utilized. A doctor will also prescribe antibiotics that can treat the underlying infection, anti-inflammatory drugs that can reduce swelling, and IV fluids to provide hydration and nutrition. A tracheotomy may be necessary in severe cases, as this will allow for the exchange of oxygen and will help to prevent respiratory failure.

Provided that a patient seeks out medical attention immediately, a full recovery is expected in the majority of cases.

Epiglottitis Prevention

In the case of Hib, there is an effective vaccine that can immunize children against infection — although it does not offer complete, 100% protection. This vaccine is routinely given to children, which is why epiglottitis due to Hib infection is rare.

Although the Hib vaccine is not normally given to adults or older children, people with other conditions such as HIV/AIDS or sickle cell disease have weakened immune systems and therefore the Hib vaccine may be recommended.

People who are taking medications that weaken the immune system, or who are undergoing chemotherapy, are also at higher risk of Hib infection and therefore epiglottitis, so immunization is an effective preventive measure in these individuals too.

Beyond this, general steps to prevent infection will also help prevent epiglottitis, such as regularly washing your hands, avoiding contact with infected items such as tissues, and not sharing eating and drinking utensils.

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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 20, 2017