Epiglottitis is characterized by inflamed tissue in your
epiglottis. It’s a potentially life-threatening illness.
The epiglottis is at the base of the tongue. It’s made up of
mostly cartilage. It helps prevent food from entering your windpipe. The tissue
that makes up the epiglottis can swell and block your airway. This requires immediate medical attention.
If you think that you or your child has epiglottitis, call 911 or seek
emergency medical help immediately.
Epiglottitis is relatively uncommon, especially in adults.
However, it requires prompt diagnosis and treatment in children, who are the
most susceptible. Haemophilus influenzae type b is the bacterium
that’s the most responsible for this type of tissue inflammation. Vaccines,
such as the Hib vaccine, help protect your child from contracting this
A bacterial infection is the most common cause of epiglottitis.
Bacteria can enter your body when you breathe in. They can then infect your
epiglottis. The most common strain of bacteria that causes this condition
is Haemophilus influenzae type b, also known as Hib. You can
catch Hib by inhaling the germs spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes,
or blows their nose.
Other bacterial strains that can cause epiglottitis include Streptococcus A, B, or C and Streptococcus pneumoniae. These are the same bacteria that
cause strep throat. Additionally, viruses such as those that cause shingles and
chicken pox can also cause epiglottitis. Fungi, such as those that cause diaper
rash or yeast infections, may also contribute to inflammation of the
Other causes of this condition include:
- smoking crack cocaine
- burning your throat from drinking hot beverages
- throat injury from trauma, such as a stabbing or
Is at Risk for Epiglottitis?
Anyone can develop epiglottitis. However, there are several
factors that can increase your risk of developing it.
Children younger than 2 months of age are at a higher risk for
developing epiglottitis. This is because these children haven’t yet received a
Additionally, children ranging from 3 to 7 years of age who live
in countries not offering vaccines or where the vaccine is hard to come by are at
increased risk. Children whose parents purposely refrain from vaccinating with
the Hib vaccine are also at increased risk for epiglottitis.
Males are more likely to develop epiglottitis than females. The
reason for this is unclear.
If you live or work with a large number of people, you’re more
likely to catch the germs of others and develop an infection. Likewise, heavily
populated environments such as schools or day care centers may increase your or
your child’s exposure to bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The risk of getting epiglottitis
is increased in those environments.
Weak Immune System
A weakened immune system can make it more difficult for your body
to fight germs. Poor immune function makes it easier for epiglottitis to
Are the Symptoms of Epiglottitis?
The signs of epiglottitis are the same regardless of the cause.
However, signs may differ between children and adults. Children can develop
epiglottitis within a matter of hours. In adults, it develops more slowly,
usually over the course of days.
The symptoms of epiglottitis that are common in children include:
- an upper respiratory infection
- a fever with chills
- lessened symptoms when leaning forward or
- a scratchy and sore throat
- a hoarse voice
- breathing through the mouth
Symptoms common in adults include:
- difficulty breathing
- a raspy or muffled voice
- harsh, noisy breathing
- a severe sore throat
- an inability to catch your breath
An adult or child may have bluish discoloration on their skin
from lack of oxygen after the airway becomes blocked.
If epiglottitis is untreated, it can block your airway
completely. This is a critical condition and requires immediate medical
attention. If you suspect epiglottitis, seek medical attention immediately.
Is Epiglottitis Diagnosed?
Due to the seriousness of this condition, you may receive a
diagnosis in an emergency care setting simply by physical observations and a
medical history. In most cases, if your doctor thinks you might have epiglottitis,
they’ll admit you into the hospital. Once you’re admitted, your doctor may need
to perform any of the following tests to support the diagnosis:
- a throat examination using a fiber optic tube
- X-rays of your throat and chest to view the
severity of the inflammation and infection
- throat and blood cultures to determine the cause
of infection, such as bacteria or a virus
Is the Treatment for Epiglottitis?
If your doctor thinks you have epiglottitis, the first mode of
treatment typically involves monitoring your oxygen levels with a pulse
oximeter device. If your blood oxygen levels become too low, you’ll likely get
supplemental oxygen through a breathing tube or mask. Your doctor may also give
you one or all of the following treatments:
- intravenous fluids for nutrition and hydration
until you’re able to swallow again
- antibiotics to treat a known or suspected
- anti-inflammatory medication, such as corticosteroids,
to reduce the swelling in your throat
You may also need a minor surgical procedure in which your doctor
inserts a needle into your trachea. This is also known as a tracheotomy (in
very severe cases) to allow exchange of oxygen and to prevent respiratory
If you seek immediate medical attention, you can expect a full
recovery in most cases.
Epiglottitis Be Prevented?
You can help reduce the risk of getting epiglottitis by doing
Children should receive 3 to 4 doses of the Hib vaccine starting
at 2 months of age. Typically, children receive a dose at 2 months, 4 months,
and 6 months old. Your child will likely also receive a booster between 12 and
15 months old.
Wash your hands frequently or use alcohol sanitizer to prevent
the spread of germs. Avoid drinking from the same cup as other people and
sharing food or utensils. Maintain good immune health with a proper diet.
If you live or work with someone who has tested positive for Hib,
ask your doctor to test you for the bacteria. Getting treatment quickly can
reduce your risk of developing epiglottitis.