Laryngitis is an inflammation of the part of the throat called the larynx or voice box. The larynx is located right above the trachea, where the lungs and throat meet. On either side of the larynx are two folds of skin called the vocal cords, which tighten or loosen to form recognizable speech and sounds. If you've ever stretched a balloon's neck to make pitched squeaks, you can understand how these vocal cords work to create human speech.
Ordinarily, the vocal cords are coated with a thin, smooth layer of mucus to keep them lubricated. When the larynx becomes inflamed by a virus or bacterial infection, however, the cords swell up and the mucus may thin or dry out. The result is a hoarse or raspy voice, often accompanied by fever and a cough. Most cases of laryngitis are caused by viral infections, but some are caused by bacterium similar to streptococcus.
The standard treatment for this condition depends on the root cause. If the laryngitis is viral in nature, then doctors usually suggest complete vocal rest and analgesics for the accompanying fever symptoms. For the less common bacteria-based disorder, a round of antibiotics may also be prescribed. Short-term (acute) laryngitis is usually not a cause for alarm -- the vocal cords should be back to normal within a few weeks at most. Long-term (chronic)laryngitis, however, can be a symptom of much more serious conditions like throat cancer or nodules on the vocal cords.
Many people develop the condition as a result of vocal strain. Those who routinely use their voices as part of their occupations should use amplification equipment or receive voice training. Cheerleaders, coaches, singers and others whose livelihoods depend on their voices should be especially aware of strains on their throats. Professional singers often receive training in how to protect themselves from stress-induced laryngitis.
Other factors which may lead to laryngitis include first and secondhand cigarette smoke, environmental irritants and the over-consumption of caffeine. These substances tend to dry out the essential mucus coating over the vocal cords, leaving them vulnerable to inflammation. Sucking on a medicated lozenge or gargling with salt water may alleviate some of the pain, but alcohol-based mouthwashes may cause more dryness. The best solution is to avoid these irritants as much as possible to prevent a regular recurrence.