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What Is Epiglottitis?

Anti-inflammatories and oxygen therapy are usually required to prevent acute respiratory failure in patients with epiglottitis.
Young children have a high risk of developing the infection that causes epiglottitis.
If symptoms of epiglottitis are present, a person should be treated immediately.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2014
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Epiglottitis is a serious condition that causes inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, the section of tissue at the top of the trachea. When a bacterial infection, virus, or throat injury damages the epiglottis, it becomes very difficult to breathe and swallow. Life-threatening respiratory failure can occur if epiglottitis is not diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages. Emergency breathing tubes, oxygen therapy, and anti-inflammatory medications are usually needed to prevent fatal complications.

Most cases of epiglottitis are triggered by a bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae, a widespread pathogen that usually does not cause problems in healthy people. Individuals with weakened immune systems, especially very young children, are at the highest risk of Haemophilus influenzae infection and subsequent epiglottitis. Many other pathogens can cause infection as well, including bacteria in the streptococci family and the herpes simplex virus. Less commonly, accidentally swallowing an irritant, smoking illicit drugs, or getting hit in the throat can cause serious irritation.

The epiglottis is made up of flexible cartilage tissue that folds up and down during respiration to allow air to pass through the trachea. When tissue becomes inflamed, the epiglottis swells and cannot fold properly. The initial symptoms of epiglottitis may include a mild fever, difficulty taking deep breaths, and a sore throat. As inflammation worsens, swallowing becomes painful and breathing gets very shallow. Respiratory failure is almost certain if the epiglottis becomes swollen enough to completely block the trachea.

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A person who shows signs of epiglottitis needs to be brought to an emergency room as soon as possible. If airway restriction is severe, a doctor can insert a breathing tube to prevent respiratory failure. Oxygen may need to be administered if the trachea is partially opened but breathing is still shallow. Once the patient is stabilized, diagnostic imaging tests are performed to gauge the severity of damage to the epiglottis and surrounding tissue. Blood and throat tissue samples are collected and analyzed to determine the bacteria or virus responsible for symptoms.

After identifying the underlying cause and alleviating breathing difficulties, a doctor can administer intravenous antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. A patient is usually kept in the hospital for several days so doctors can carefully monitor his or her recovery. Once the patient starts feeling better, he or she is prescribed oral medications to take daily for one or two weeks and scheduled for a followup examination. With immediate treatment, most children and adults experience full recoveries from epiglottitis.

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anon927498
Post 6

My husband had epiglottis a few years back. He went to the hospital because he could not breathe. They were going to send him home with antibiotics for a cold, then a doctor decided to perform a CAT scan or MRI (I don't know medical stuff). When my husband was told to lie down and rolled into the machine, his airway was totally cut off. He tried to tell the tech he couldn't breathe, but the tech said that if he could talk, he could breathe. My husband crawled out of the machine.

They placed him on a combination of oxygen and helium because the airway was so restricted. They took him into surgery to place a tube down his throat, but the medicine they sprayed in his mouth to numb the area totally blocked his airway (it was a pin-hole). They had to perform an emergency tracheotomy. My husband was in his 50's at the time. No one had heard of someone his age having epiglottis.

Later in recovery, my husband was resting, but in pain. They took a chest X-ray and told me everything would be fine and to go home to get some rest, as we had been there all night. While home I get a phone call from the hospital -- both my husband's lungs had collapsed. He showed no outward symptoms of collapsed lungs.

The way I see it, my husband almost died three times. Once in the machine (where the tech wanted him to stay), once in surgery (when they totally blocked his airway with a numbing solution) and once in recovery (where he sat with two collapsed lungs). I count my blessings every day that someone (not the doctors or nurses) was looking out for him.

anon280639
Post 5

I just got out of the hospital after being there for two weeks due to epiglottitis. I'm only 19 and I guess it's really rare for someone my age to get such a thing.

I woke up with a sore throat one morning and immediately thought I had strep throat (which I guess is common), and went straight to the doctor. Once there, they tested me for strep and it came back negative but they still treated me for strep.

That night though, I went to get some water and I found that every time I tried to swallow it, it would come out my nose or I was choking on it. So I went to the hospital where they told me I was over-reacting and that I was just an anxious kid. By this point, I couldn't swallow at all and I was drooling into a bag. They finally got an ENT down to check for Epiglottitis and it turns out I had it. So then I got a trachea tube.

Epiglottis is the most painful thing ever! I was in ICU for a week and had to be on a tube feed the whole time. They also had to suction out my lungs by sticking a catheter in my trach (that was by far the most painful thing I have ever experienced).

Epiglottis is extremely serious and if anybody sees any signs that they or someone they know has a sore throat or is having trouble swallowing, I would take them to the hospital ASAP! I was only sick for two days and when they got me in for surgery my airway was the size of a coffee straw.

There have been too many people die from this illness. If you think you have it, go to the hospital! I cannot stress it enough. Even if your doctor says it's strep, if you can't swallow anything without choking, you probably have it.

I hope that someone sees this and passes on the news of this rarely talked about life-threatening illness.

anon256150
Post 4

I agree we should treat our kids before they get infected with bacteria and should be taken to the doctor right away when you first inspect epiglottis. So never wait another day because it could get more infected.

turquoise
Post 3

@feruze-- Has your daughter had the Hib vaccine? It's short for Haemophilus influenzae B. It helps prevent flu infections and also helps prevent acute epiglottitis in children. Epiglottitis is rarely seen with kids who get this vaccination.

Both of our kids have had it and neither have suffered from a flu infection, throat infections or epiglottitis so far.

I have also heard about the long epiglottis phenomenon @burcidi talked about. That is absolutely normal, but you should still be careful because people with long epiglottitis can be at a higher risk for throat infections. The bacteria and viruses have easier access to it through the mouth when the epiglottis is long.

So your daughter might not have epiglottis right now, but you should still talk about it with your doctor. You might need to strengthen her immunity so that she doesn't get infections more often than other kids.

burcidi
Post 2

@feruze-- Of course, you should seek a doctor's opinion if you think that something is wrong.

However, I know from my son who had epiglottitis last year, that it comes with additional symptoms. The article already mentioned them, but the ones my son had was fever, fatigue and difficulty swallowing. My son had also experienced a flu immediately before, which is one of epiglottitis causes. If none of these symptoms are there with your daughter, she might have just been born with a long epiglottis.

Some kids are born that way. It appears like they have an extra tongue or as if the epiglottis is sticking out because of swelling. My sister was born with a long epiglottis and she's absolutely normal.

I think you should have doctor check her out anyway so that your mind can be at ease.

bear78
Post 1

My daughter is six months old and my husband and I saw what it looked like a very long epiglottis when she opened her mouth the other day. She doesn't seem to be sick, but we have not seen anything like this before.

I, for one, am worried that this might be epiglottitis in the beginning stages. I don't know if I should take her to the doctor right away or wait one more day and look for additional symptoms.

Has anyone experienced something like this before? Should I be worried?

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