What is Epiglottitis?
Physiologically, the epiglottis is a small flap of cartilage that acts as a lid for your windpipe to keep food or fluids from entering the airway. Normally this flap stays open to allow air to flow into the windpipe, and closes during swallowing. Epiglottitis is the inflammation of this flap that can, in severe cases, actually keep air from entering the airway.
There are a number of possible causes for this inflammation including burns from swallowing hot liquids, and direct injury to the throat, but the most common cause is the Influenza B virus, which is also responsible for pneumonia, meningitis, ear infections, and sinus infections. The swelling can also be caused by strains of Pneumococcus, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, or Klebsiella bacteria. It is possible for children who have had their HIB vaccine to still experience epiglottitis. In rare cases, the herpes simplex virus has also been associated with development of viral epiglottitis, though it is extremely rare.
Interestingly, according to emedicinehealth.com, "although George Washington's death in 1796 was attributed to quinsy (today we call it peritonsillar abscess), which is a pocket of pus behind the tonsils, it was actually due to epiglottitis."
Conservative estimates put the number of cases at 10 to 40 for every one million people in the U.S. Since the introduction of the HIB vaccine in 1985, the number of cases of the condition has been drastically reduced.
Epiglottitis affects children between the ages of two and seven and peaks between ages two and four, and for adults between the ages of 20 and 40. It is very rare that epiglottitis occurs in infants (younger than one year), making up about 4 percent of all total reported cases.
Symptoms of Epiglottitis
Since this little piece of cartilage can create much havoc if it isn't working properly, symptoms of epiglottitis will come on quickly, although some cases have reported a gradual onset of symptoms over a period of a few hours to a few days. Most commonly, symptoms include:
- sore throat
- changes in voice