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Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What is epiglottitis?

Your epiglottis is a flap of tissue in your throat below your tongue. It helps keep food from going down your windpipe when you swallow. If your epiglottis swells up, it can block your windpipe so you can’t breathe.

Epiglottitis is a bacterial infection of your epiglottis.

  • The most common symptoms of epiglottitis are severe sore throat and noisy, hard breathing

  • Epiglottitis is life-threatening, because you won't be able to breathe if your windpipe gets blocked

  • Epiglottitis is especially dangerous in children because they have small windpipes that can get blocked quickly

  • Doctors treat epiglottitis with antibiotics and usually put a breathing tube in the windpipe to keep it from swelling shut

  • To prevent epiglottitis, get your child the Hib vaccine—doctors give it to children as part of their routine shots

Children and adults who may have epiglottitis should go to the hospital emergency department right away.

What causes epiglottitis?

Epiglottitis happens when your epiglottis is infected by bacteria.

The infection causes your epiglottis to swell. This can close off the airways so you can’t breathe.

What are the symptoms of epiglottitis?

Symptoms of epiglottitis start quickly, especially in children. A child's throat can close up within a few hours of symptoms starting.

Epiglottis is often a life-threatening emergency, so take any child or adult with symptoms to a hospital emergency department.

Children may have:

  • Severe throat pain

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Fever

  • Drooling

  • A muffled voice

  • Squeaking noise when breathing in (stridor), caused by blockage of the airway

  • Trouble breathing

In adults, symptoms are similar to those of children, but usually take more than 24 hours to develop. Epiglottitis can block an adult's airway, but blockage is less common than in children.

How can doctors tell if I have epiglottitis?

Doctors suspect epiglottitis based on symptoms. To be sure they:

  • Look down the throat with a flexible scope

For children, doctors do this in the operating room so they are ready to put in a breathing tube if needed. Adults can often stay awake and just have their throat numbed.

How do doctors treat epiglottitis?

The most important thing is to make sure the person can breathe.

For children:

  • Doctors put a breathing tube down the throat into the windpipe to keep the airway from swelling shut

  • If doctors can’t put in a breathing tube because the epiglottis is blocking the windpipe, they’ll cut a hole in the front of the neck to put a tube directly into the windpipe (tracheostomy)

Often, adults don't need a breathing tube, but some do. You'll need to stay in the hospital so doctors can watch you closely.

All people with epiglottitis need antibiotics by vein (IV) to treat the infection.

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