The short answer to this question is yes - left untreated, laryngitis can permanently damage your voice.
In this post I will show you some simple steps you can take to prevent this - and how to treat a case of laryngitis when it does occur.
My name is James Anthony and I’m a teacher. In my professional life I have suffered from laryngitis (at least) every 6 months for almost 20 years.
During this time I have learned a great deal about how to prevent and treat the condition. Let me explain what I know - starting with what laryngitis is, and how it affects people.
What is Laryngitis?
Laryngitis occurs when your voice box or vocal chords become irritated or swollen.
When you talk, you pass air through your vocal chords and they vibrate, producing the sound of your voice. So when they are inflamed with laryngitis your voice can sound raspy, hoarse or disappear altogether.
Most cases of laryngitis appear suddenly and last about a week, before improving. This is known as 'acute' laryngitis, which is usually caused by:
- Viral infections (e.g. a cold or flu) which cause your vocal chords to swell up.
- Voice strain where vocal chords are used too much and react.
- Bacterial infection (e.g. infections of the larynx) which can be treated with antibiotics.
'Chronic' laryngitis on the other hand, tends not to get better and can last months. This can be caused by acid reflux, smoking, allergies - or consistent voice overuse.
You will be able to tell what type of laryngitis you have by how long it persists - or by seeing your doctor.
This video explains the causes and types of laryngitis in more detail ..
When Might Permanent Voice Damage Occur?
In extreme cases of laryngitis, when symptoms are ignored for long enough - permanent damage to your voice can occur.
This is particularly the case for people who overuse their voice every day - e.g. teachers, speakers, singers etc. I have been told by numerous medical professionals that regular overuse of my voice in the classroom puts me at risk of infections and permanent damage of the larynx.
If I ignore laryngitis symptoms and just carry on, nodules or polyps can form on my vocal chords - and permanent damage to my voice can follow.
Whatever the reason for your case of laryngitis, you don't want to ignore it. If left untreated it can have a permanent effect on your ability to speak.
How Do I Know if I Have Laryngitis?
The common symptoms of laryngitis include:
- A hoarse or raspy voice (sometimes disappearing completely)
- A very dry or sore throat
- A greatly increased need to cough or clear your throat
- Waking up and having difficulty swallowing
- A slight temperature
In my experience, if left untreated these symptoms don't just get better - so to avoid losing your voice completely, follow the treatment steps below:
How to Treat a Case of Laryngitis
1. Identify the likely cause of your laryngitis
- Did you get it immediately following a throat or chest infection?
- Do you have a job where you raise your voice regularly?
- Do you have an allergy to something which could be causing it?
- Do you suffer from acid reflux?
- Do you smoke?
When you know what type of laryngitis you have, you will know how to treat it - and whether medication is necessary.
2. Start treatment yourself straight away
Whatever the cause of your case of laryngitis, treatment at home should include:
- Complete 'voice rest' - A doctor will often prescribe 7 days complete voice rest as a first treatment for laryngitis. This means no talking, not even a whisper. You have an injury to the vocal chords which will only get better if you rest them. While it might feel safer to whisper, this actually does more damage than talking normally.
- Plenty of water to drink - Hydrating yourself not only lubricates an irritated throat but also gives your body what it needs to heal itself. Try and avoid caffeine, alcohol and other things which will dehydrate you for this reason.
- Removal of the likely cause - if you can identify a 'reason' why this occurred, remove the cause where possible - if you smoke try stopping for a while, if you're ill give yourself time to get better.
- Over the counter medicines can ease the discomfort of laryngitis - lozenges, cough mixture etc .. although don't expect them to treat the cause.
Most cases of laryngitis get better in a few days by resting your voice and hydrating yourself. If you find this doesn’t happen, see a doctor to identify any underlying complication such as an infection which will need treating with medication.
3. See a doctor or medical professional
Your doctor will try and diagnose a cause from the list above - most likely they will prescribe voice test, in more extreme circumstances they will prescribe antibiotics too. Don’t expect this however - most laryngitis cases are viral, not bacterial .. and won’t respond to antibiotics.
If your job requires continued use of your voice, your doctor might sign you off work for 7 days. As a teacher this is unpopular with my school, however I have tried to teach without using my voice - and in my school this just isn't possible.
Without resting my voice, it simply would not get better - putting me at risk of permanent damage.
4. Referral to a specialist
Your doctor will usually give laryngitis a week to clear up. If it doesn't, or if it keeps returning - they will refer you to a specialist.
Referral usually means going to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) clinic and having a small camera dropped down your throat (through a nostril, it's a unique experience!) .. to discover whether you have nodules, or other damage to your vocal chords that require surgery.
If the likely cause of your continued laryngitis is voice overuse, your doctor might also refer you to a speech therapist.
Knowing how to treat a case of laryngitis is useful - but in my experience, it is better to try and prevent it from developing in the first place.
These are my tips to prevent laryngitis from developing. They are particularly useful if you are a teacher or someone who overuses your voice regularly.
How to Prevent Laryngitis
Let me share some of the things I do, to prevent laryngitis from occurring.
1. Identify what caused your laryngitis
Most people who have had more than one case of laryngitis, or a case which won’t properly go away - can identify a lifestyle or allergy related cause.
Treating this cause before it develops, is the best way to reduce the number and severity of future cases. So look again at the list above, and identify your likely cause.
2. Get used to noticing early symptoms
Notice when you feel the early signs of laryngitis - and consciously rest your voice before it becomes a 'full blown' case which needs 'treating'.
The early signs to look out for are:
- A build up of phlegm in your throat, especially in the mornings
- Tingling or slight pain in your larynx, low down in your throat
- Occasional cracking of your voice - or slight pain when you try and speak
If you notice these symptoms and suspect that a case of laryngitis might be on it's way - slow down, and start the treatment suggestions above before it gets worse.
I have found this often helps prevent a full blown case of laryngitis.
3. Make lifestyle changes to avoid your likely 'cause'
To avoid permanently damaging your voice - you need to treat the cause of your laryngitis, not just the symptoms you feel.
Ask yourself, is there anything you can do to remove the likelihood of a future case of laryngitis?
- I stopped smoking over 10 years ago due to laryngitis and it had an immediately positive impact on my health. If you do smoke, use laryngitis as a reason to stop.
- If you regularly get infections, are there things you can do to reduce these? (eating a better diet, or taking supplements for example).
- If, like me, you overuse your vocal chords - is there a different way to do your job which would not put so much pressure on your voice?
- And do you drink enough water every day to hydrate yourself properly?
Using the treatment steps above - and the prevention steps just mentioned - you will be able to control your laryngitis much more easily.
As a teacher, I want to offer some additional advice for fellow voice 'over-users' .. and those whose voice is fundamental to their job.
Advice for Teachers with Laryngitis
According to the speech therapists I have seen, the best thing I can do to prevent further cases of laryngitis is to stop teaching altogether. Many teachers are forced out of their jobs due to reoccurring throat and voice problems.
The only alternative is to change the way you teach - removing the moments when you raise your voice, or talk over the top of a noisy class. In many of the schools I have taught in, this is a challenge to do.
There are some useful tips to help you do this in this video ..
I use all of these suggestions - and I have taken some long term decisions too:
Partly as a result of reoccurring laryngitis, I have reduced my hours in school - and now create online learning to earn an income too. Millions of people worldwide are buying courses online as 'self development' becomes mainstream - I create the courses they learn from on my 'days off'.
I find that this gives my voice greater opportunities for rest, and allows me to use my teaching experience doing something different. Teaching online enables me to make much healthier life choices, and is an income which will replace my classroom job soon.
If you're a teacher worried about reoccurring voice problems, and are wondering what else you can do with your teaching qualification and experience, check this post out which gives you 373 Fresh Alternatives Job Ideas for Teachers.
You are much more employable than you realise!