Hoarseness, an abnormal change in your voice, is a common symptom often experienced with a dry, scratchy throat. If you are hoarse, you may have a raspy, weak, or airy quality to your voice that prevents you from making smooth vocal sounds.
This symptom commonly stems from an issue with the vocal cords and may involve an inflamed larynx. This is known as laryngitis. If you have persistent hoarseness—lasting for more than a couple of weeks—seek prompt medical attention, as you may have a serious underlying medical condition.
Common Underlying Causes of Hoarseness
Hoarseness is typically caused by a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract. Other common factors that can cause, contribute, or worsen your condition include:
- acid reflux
- drinking caffeinated and alcoholic beverages
- screaming or overusing your vocal cords
- inhaling toxic substances
- coughing excessively
Other less common causes of hoarseness include:
- polyps (abnormal growths) on the vocal cords
- throat, thyroid, or lung cancers
- damage to the throat, such as from the insertion of a tube
- male adolescence
- poor-functioning thyroid gland
- aortic aneurysms (swelling of the aorta, the largest artery of the heart)
- nerve conditions that weaken the voice box muscles
How to Recognize an Emergency
While hoarseness is typically not an emergency, it may be linked to some serious medical conditions. Speak with your doctor if your hoarseness becomes a persistent issue, lasting more than one week for a child and two weeks for an adult. See your doctor promptly if hoarseness is accompanied by drooling (in a child) and difficulty swallowing or breathing. A sudden inability to speak or put together coherent sentences may indicate a serious underlying medical condition.
Addressing and Easing Symptoms
See your doctor if preventative home health options listed below do not lessen the duration of your hoarseness. He or she will be able to help determine the cause of your symptoms and the proper treatment.
- Rest your voice for a few days. Avoid talking and shouting. Do not whisper, as this actually strains your vocal cords.
- Drink plenty of hydrating fluids. Fluids may relieve some of your symptoms and moisten your throat. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as these can dry out your throat.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Adding a vaporizer can help open your airway and ease breathing.
- Take a hot shower, as the steam from the shower will help open your airways and provide moisture.
- Stop or limit your smoking, as the smoke dries and irritates your throat.
- Moisten your throat by sucking on lozenges or chewing gum. This stimulates salivation and may help soothe your throat.
- Eliminate allergens from your environment. Allergies can often worsen or trigger hoarseness.
- Do not use decongestants for your hoarseness, as these irritate and dry out the throat.
What Happens at the Doctor’s Office
If you arrive at your doctor’s office or emergency room and are experiencing breathing difficulty, the first mode of treatment may be to restore your ability to breathe. Your doctor may give you a breathing treatment (using a mask) or insert a breathing tube to assist you in breathing.
Your doctor will likely want to take an inventory of your symptoms and a thorough medical history to determine the underlying cause. Your doctor may ask about the quality and strength of your voice and the frequency and duration of your symptoms. He or she may ask about factors that worsen the condition of your symptoms, such as smoking and shouting or speaking for long periods. Your doctor will assess any additional symptoms, such as fever or fatigue.
Your doctor will likely examine your throat with a tiny mirror to look for any inflammation or abnormalities. Depending on the symptoms reported, he or she may take a throat culture, run a series of X-rays of your throat, or recommend a CT scan (a type of X-ray). Your doctor may also take your blood to run a complete blood count. This assesses your red and white blood cells and hemoglobin levels.
Consequences of Untreated Hoarseness
If you have persistent and chronic hoarseness, a serious underlying medical condition may be the cause. Early intervention can often improve your prognosis. Identifying the cause of your persistent hoarseness may prevent your condition from worsening and limit any damage to your vocal cords or throat.
There are several actions that you can take to prevent hoarseness. Listed below are some prevention methods that may help to protect your vocal cords.
- Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Breathing smoke can cause irritation of your vocal cords and larynx and can dry out your throat.
- Wash your hands frequently. Hoarseness is often caused by a viral respiratory infection. Washing your hands will prevent the spread of germs and keep you healthy.
- Stay hydrated. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Fluids thin the mucus in the throat and keep it moist.
- Avoid fluids that dehydrate your body, such as caffeinated beverages and alcoholic drinks. These operate as diuretics and cause you to lose water.
- Try to limit the urge to clear your throat. This may increase the inflammation of your vocal cords and overall irritation in your throat.