Did you ever hear someone say, "I lost my voice"? Did you think: "What did you do with it?" Or maybe you woke up one morning and your voice sounded funny when you tried to talk. Maybe you were croaking like a frog or when you tried to speak, only some of the words came out.
Here's the way your voice works — and why sometimes it doesn't.
How Your Voice Works
Open up your mouth and say something. Anything. Answer the question: "What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?"
At the top of your windpipe — also called your trachea (say: tray-kee-uh) — is your larynx (say: lar-inks), or voice box. It's the source of your voice. Inside your larynx are two bands of muscles called vocal cords, or vocal folds. When you breathe, your vocal cords are relaxed and open so that you can get air into and out of your lungs.
But when you decide to say something, these cords come together. Now the air from your lungs has to pass through a smaller space. This causes your vocal cords to vibrate. The sound from these vibrations goes up your throat and comes out your mouth as "Chocolate is the best flavor!" (or whatever your favorite flavor of ice cream happens to be).
You can make different sounds by lengthening or shortening, or tensing or relaxing, the vocal cords. Although you don't even think about it, every time you want to talk with a deeper voice you lengthen and relax these vocal muscles. When you talk with a higher pitched voice, you tighten the vocal cords and make them smaller. You can try this right now. Make your voice go from deep to high pitch and back again. Do you feel the vibrations along your throat coming from your vocal cords?
What Causes Laryngitis?
When your cords become inflamed and swollen, they can't work properly. Your voice may sound hoarse. This is called laryngitis (say: lair-in-jye-tis).
In kids, laryngitis often comes from too much yelling and screaming. You may be hollering at your younger brother or sister. Or you might be cheering on your favorite team, yelling with the crowd during a great play — touchdown! Or you may be in a group of noisy kids and have to talk loudly to be heard. Even a lot of loud singing can irritate your vocal cords and cause laryngitis.
Although it sounds odd, sometimes your stomach can cause laryngitis. Just like you have a tube for air to go into and out of your lungs, you have a tube for food to go into your stomach. Sometimes the stomach acid that helps break down that food comes back up your swallowing tube. The acid can irritate your vocal cords.
Allergies or smoking can also irritate your vocal cords (another good reason not to start messing with cigarettes). Did you ever notice that people who smoke a lot have rough, raspy voices?
Infections from germs are a very common cause of laryngitis — in kids as well as adults. Sometimes bacteria can infect the vocal cords, but most of the time it's viruses — like those that cause runny noses or flu-like illnesses. That's why sometimes when you have a cold or a bad cough, your voice also sounds funny.
Kids who yell and talk loudly can irritate their vocal cords. Over time, people who yell all the time may develop nodules, or little bumps, on their vocal cords. This can make your voice hoarse, rough, and deeper than usual.
How Do I Know if I Have Laryngitis?
A horsy or raspy voice is the main symptom or sign of laryngitis. You also may have no voice at all or maybe just little squeaks come out when you try to talk. You might need to cough to clear your throat, or you may feel a tickle deep in your throat. These are all signs that you may have laryngitis. You may have this strange voice for a few days, but if you have it longer, you probably will have to go to the doctor.
How Will My Doctor Know I Have It?
Most of the time, doctors can diagnose laryngitis just from the changes in your voice, and knowing that you've had a cold or have been yelling too much.
But sometimes the doctor might think you need to see an ENT specialist — a doctor that specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, and throat. This doctor can look into your throat using a special mirror. The mirror is angled so that when it's in your mouth, the doctor can look down into your larynx.
Sometimes doctors use a tiny tube with an even tinier camera that goes through your nose or mouth. This cool camera that goes into your throat is a little uncomfortable. Luckily, it only takes a minute for the doctor to take a good look at your vocal cords.
How Will My Doctor Treat Laryngitis?
How the doctor treats your laryngitis depends on why you have it. If the laryngitis is from a viral infection, the doctor will recommend lots of fluids and resting your voice by talking as little as possible. Being quiet can be hard, but it can be fun, too — especially if you get to show people what you're trying to say by drawing pictures or acting things out.
If your laryngitis is from too much yelling, you will have to be more careful with your voice. Try not to yell at your brother, even if he drives you crazy! It's OK to cheer during the big game, but remember not to yell too loudly for too long.
If stomach acid is causing your laryngitis, the doctor will talk to you about medication. You may have to change your diet and give up some foods that make the problem worse.
Can I Prevent It?
To prevent laryngitis, try not to talk or yell in a way that hurts your voice. A humidifier that puts more water into the air may also help keep your throat from drying out. Also, never smoke and try not to be around people who are smoking.
Tonight, when you open your mouth and say "goodnight," you'll know where the sound of those words come from. And, if that "goodnight" comes out like the "ribbit" of a frog, you'll know that it could be laryngitis!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2010