What is Hoarseness?

Hoarseness is defined as an abnormal voice caused by interruption of vocal cord closure and vibration. Most commonly hoarseness develops from benign causes such as upper respiratory infections, vocal abuse, gastroesophageal reflux disease and advancing age. Vocal cord nodules, polyps, granulomas, paralysis, and cancer are less common causes.

Symptoms and Types

Unexplained hoarseness lasting more than three weeks should usually prompt an evaluation as to its cause. An ear, nose and throat specialist will first obtain a history of the complaint, including the quality of the hoarseness, its severity, the length of time the hoarseness has been present, and any factors that either aggravate or alleviate it.

Diagnosis and Tests

After obtaining the history, the physician reviews any pertinent medication history and social history that may affect the voice, including the use of tobacco and alcohol.

A thorough head and neck examination, including inspection for neck masses or surgical scars, the state of oral hydration, or the presence of any nasal or postnasal drainage, is then performed.

Finally, the physician examines the larynx, or voice box, to determine whether any visible pathology exists. This is usually accomplished using fiberoptic laryngoscopy. A simple procedure performed in the office, usually requiring only a few minutes.

Based on the specific findings on this examination, the specialist can present a diagnosis and treatment plan to the patient.

Treatment and Care

To prevent and treat mild hoarseness:

  • Do not smoke, avoid noxious fumes and secondary smoke
  • Hydrate
    • 8 glasses of water a day
    • Chew gum, suck on hard candies
    • Keep environment humid
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol – these cause the body to lose water
  • Treat Gastroespohageal Reflux Disease (GERD) if present
  • Avoid loud or prolonged voice use
  • Do not clear throat
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid over the counter antihistamines that cause dryness
  • Avoid menthol throat lozenges that dry the throat
  • “Warm up” vocal muscles prior to prolonged use
  • Rest your voice after vigorous use
  • Use a microphone where you need to project your voice


Vocal Cord Granuloma

What is a vocal cord granuloma?

A vocal cord granuloma is an inflammatory lesion of the vocal cords, usually occurring on the posterior 1/3 of the cord.

How are vocal cord granulomas treated?

Initial treatment consists of trying to eliminate the irritating agent. This includes removal of an endotracheal tube if possible, treatment of reflux disease, and sometimes voice therapy. Microsurgical removal, with or without use of a laser, is reserved for those patients who do not respond to conservative treatment.

Vocal Cord Paralysis

What causes vocal cord paralysis?

The right and left recurrent laryngeal nerves control the motion of the vocal cords. Damage to one or both of these nerves leads to vocal cord paralysis. Causes of injury to the nerve include inadvertent damage from neck surgery such as thyroidectomy, carotid endarterectomy or others, complications from having an edotrachela (breathing) tube, trauma to the neck or chest, tumors involving the base of the skull, neck, or chest, and viral infections.


How is vocal cord paralysis treated?

If the cause of the paralysis is not apparent, observation, sometimes with speech therapy, may be recommended for up to a year to allow for spontaneous resolution of the paralysis and compensation from the opposite side. Surgical intervention is appropriate if the paralysis is deemed to be irreversible and the symptoms of hoarseness and/or choking are causing significant problems. This can take the form of injecting the paralyzed vocal cord with temporary or permanent fillers to bulk up the cord (vocal cord injection), or repositioning the vocal cord with an implant (thyroplasty). A tracheotomy may be indicated if there are serious breathing problems.


Vocal Cord Nodules

What are vocal cord nodules?

Vocal cord nodules, also known as singer’s nodules or screamer’s nodules, are tiny calluses that form on both vocal cords simultaneously, usually 1/3 of the way back from the anterior-most aspect of the vocal cords.

How are vocal cord nodules treated?

Like calluses, nodules will usually resolve by removing the cause. Vocal therapy is indicated to decrease vocal cord friction and irritation. This may consist of self-treatment (see Treatment of Mild Hoarseness), or may benefit from professional speech therapy consultation. Microsurgical removal of the nodules is rarely necessary, but may be considered after failure of maximal attempts at voice therapy.

Vocal Cord Polyps

What are vocal cord polyps?

Vocal cord polyps are benign growths originating from one or both vocal cords. Polyps differ from vocal cord nodules in that they are usually larger and more likely to be unilateral. They are usually filled with a jelly-like material that makes them unlikely to resolve spontaneously.


How are vocal cord polyps treated?

Conservative treatment of vocal cord polyps may include eliminating irritating factors, such as excess stomach acid, or cigarette smoke. Voice rest or speech therapy may be recommended. However, unlike vocal cord nodules, polyps are unlikely to resolve with conservative treatment and generally require surgical intervention consisting of a laryngoscopy and excision of the polyp using microscopic technique.


Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (LPR)

What is Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (LPR)?

Laryngopharyngeal reflux is the backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus, and then into the throat. In Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the acid irritates the tissues of the esophagus (the feeding tube that connects the stomach and the throat) and the symptoms are primarily heartburn and indigestion. In LPR, the acid spends very little time in the esophagus and rises to the level of the throat and larynx (voice box) and causes swelling and irritation in these areas.


How is LPR treated?

Treatment for LPR includes a combination of behavioral modification and medical therapy. Behavioral modifications include weight reduction, avoidance of late night eating and avoidance of products/foods that trigger acid reflux. Common triggers of acid reflux include alcohol, tobacco, spicy foods, fatty foods, caffeine, chocolate and peppermint. Additionally, sleeping with the head of the bed elevated may be helpful.

The goal of medical therapy in LPR is to reduce the production of stomach acid and its affects. This is primarily achieved through a class of medications called proton-pump inhibitors (prilosec, nexium, aciphex, prevacid, protonix) as well as H2 blockers (pepcid, zantac) and antacids (maalox, mylanta). Once the diagnosis of LPR has been made, a trial of one or more of these medications is initiated for several weeks to months. The doses and frequency of these medications are often adjusted based on the patient’s response to treatment.

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