Epiglottitis is a condition that can be very dangerous, despite not being particularly well know. The epiglottis is a small flap of skin that hangs down off the back of your throat. You can see it easily if you open your mouth wide, look in a mirror, and say “ahhhh!”. As is the case with just about any part of the body, the epiglottis can become swollen and infected. When the epiglottis becomes swollen, it can body the airway, causing a person to suffocate in a very short period of time.
There are several causes of epiglottitis. Some of these causes are more common than others. On of the historically most common causes of epiglottitis was an infection with a bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae. H. influenzae, despite its name, does NOT cause the flu. Rather, it is generally responsible for causing meningitis and pneumonia. It can also cause epiglottitis.
Fortunately, the incidence of epiglottitis caused by H. influenzae is dropping with the advent of commonly available vaccines for protection against H. influenzae. This vaccine is given early in childhood and provides excellent protection against this infection.
Epiglottitis can also be caused by infections from other bacteria and viruses, but these causes are far less common. Some of the other infectious causes of epiglottitis include candida (a fungus), varicella zoster (a virus that also causes shingles and chickenpox), and streptococcus (a bacteria).
Epiglottitis can be caused by trauma to the throat. Burns and mechanical trauma can cause the epiglottis to become inflamed and swollen. (Mechanical trauma is “medical speak” for getting hit hard by something)
Epiglottitis causes immediate and severe symptoms. A child effected by this condition will experience a fever, sore throat, drooling, pain in the neck, difficultly breathing, and pain on swallowing solids or liquids. If the swelling gets bad enough, the airway can be blocked. This is a medical emergency, and as such epiglottitis must always be taken very seriously.
Because epiglottitis can cause the effected person to suffocate, the most important step in treatment is to protect the airway. This means that a doctor will do what is necessary to keep the swelling from blocking the throat. A tube can be placed in the throat that helps a person breathe. If the tube cannot be placed, there is a medical procedure called a tracheotomy which can be done. This involves making a hole in the neck below the blockage. This hole can be hooked up to devices that allow the person to breathe.
If the epiglottitis is caused by an infection, there are antibiotics which can be given to control the infection. This is done after the airway is protected. Viral and fungal causes are treated with appropriate anti-viral and anti-fungal medications.
If you have questions about epiglottitis, talk to your doctor or nurse. If you have a medical emergency or suspect that a person is having a hard time breathing, do not hesitate to call 911 and get immediate help. Epiglottitis is not something to be taken lightly.