Epiglottitis is inflammation of the epiglottis. This is the tissue that covers the trachea (windpipe). Epiglottitis can be a life-threatening disease.
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The epiglottis is a stiff, yet flexible tissue (called cartilage) at the back of the tongue. It closes your windpipe (trachea) when you swallow so food does not enter your airway. This helps prevent coughing or choking after swallowing.
In children, epiglottitis is usually caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae (H influenzae) type B. In adults, it is often due to other bacteria such as Strepcoccus pneumoniae, or viruses such as herpes simplex virus and varicella-zoster.
Epiglottitis is now very uncommon because the H influenzae type B (Hib) vaccine is given routinely to all children. The disease was once most often seen in children ages 2 through 6. In rare cases, epiglottitis can occur in adults.
Epiglottitis begins with a high fever and sore throat. Other symptoms may include:
Difficulty breathing (the person may need to sit upright and lean slightly forward to breathe)
Voice changes (hoarseness)
The airways can become totally blocked, which can result in cardiac arrest and death.
Exams and Tests
Epiglottitis can be a medical emergency. Seek medical help right away. Do not use anything to press the tongue down to try to look at the throat at home. Doing so may make the condition worse.
The health care provider may examine the voice box (larynx) using a small mirror held against the back of the throat. Or a viewing tube called a laryngoscope may be used. This examination is best done in the operating room or a similar setting where sudden breathing problems can be more easily handled.
Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.