Hoarseness isn’t necessarily an uncommon health complaint, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even though having a hoarse, strained or raspy voice isn’t a disease on its own, it can still be a symptom of a serious underlying problem. Knowing when to see a doctor is the key to making sure you get the most appropriate care as quickly as possible.
How your voice “works”
Like other types of sounds, your voice makes noise as a result of vibrations — specifically, when your vocal cords vibrate. Your vocal cords (sometimes called vocal folds) are bands of smooth, taut muscle located deep in the part of your throat called your larynx (or “voice box”), which is located at the top of your trachea.
When we’re not talking, these folds stay open, allowing air to pass freely through the trachea and into (and out of) the lungs. When we speak (or sing or make other vocal noises), the vocal cords tighten and move together. As air from the lungs passes over them, it causes them to vibrate, producing sound. The size, shape and thickness of the vocal cords, combined with the size and shape of the nose, mouth and throat — all determine how your voice sounds. Higher pitches are made when we put more tension on the cords, while lower pitches are associated with more relaxed tension.
What causes hoarseness?
Hoarseness typically occurs when your vocal cords become irritated and inflamed or when the air is partially blocked as it passes across the vocal cords. The most common causes of hoarseness include:
- Upper respiratory infections, including colds
- Allergies, including seasonal allergies
- Exposure to chemicals, fumes, pollutants or other airway irritants
- Overusing your voice or using your voice loudly, especially for a prolonged period
- Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus, sometimes far enough to irritate the vocal cords
- Other medical problems, like thyroid disease or neurological disorders
- Injury to your throat or neck
- Cancer and benign growths
The first step in treating a hoarse voice is determining the underlying cause. Diagnosis typically involves a history of how your hoarseness developed — for instance, have you been yelling? Do you smoke? Have you had a cold lately? Depending on your history, Dr. Walker may use a flexible tool called a laryngoscope to examine your throat and your vocal cords, looking for growths, redness, and other signs or causes of irritation or inflammation. Finally, Dr. Walker may order additional tests and evaluations, like blood tests or biopsies (tiny tissue samples) to confirm the diagnosis. If he suspects GERD, he might also order an endoscopic evaluation, a medical exam that uses a special scope to view your esophagus. Endoscopy is performed on an outpatient basis, usually using sedation to help you nap throughout the procedure.
When you need a doctor’s care
Sometimes, hoarseness will go away on its own, especially if it’s caused by a cold or an allergy. In those cases, once the cold or allergy subsides, the hoarseness typically resolves as well. Other times, simple lifestyle modifications, like drinking more water and quitting smoking, can help you restore your voice without medical intervention. (Avoiding secondhand smoke is important, too.) If you’ve been yelling or talking a lot, simply giving your voice a day or two of rest may be all it takes to get your voice back to normal. In these cases, hoarseness usually goes away on its own within a couple of weeks.
So, when should you make an appointment with Walker Family Care? Generally, any time that hoarseness lasts longer than two weeks, you should schedule an office visit. Prolonged hoarseness that doesn’t resolve within two weeks could be a sign of a more serious issue, including throat cancer. Or it might indicate you have polyps, which are benign, fleshy growths, on your vocal cords. It’s also a good idea to schedule an office visit if you have a persistent fever or other unusual symptoms.
Find out what’s causing your hoarseness
At Walker Family Care, we use the most advanced diagnostic techniques to determine the underlying cause of hoarseness, helping each patient get the most appropriate care for their needs. To learn what’s causing your voice problems, book an appointment online today.