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Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Epiglottitis is an infection of the epiglottis, which can lead to severe airway obstruction.


When air is inhaled (inspired), it passes through the nose and the nasopharynx or through the mouth and the oropharynx. These are both connected to the larynx, a tube made of cartilage. The air continues down the larynx to the trachea. The trachea then splits into two branches, the left and right bronchi (bronchial tubes). These bronchi branch into smaller air tubes that run within the lungs, leading to the small air sacs of the lungs (alveoli).

Either food, liquid, or air may be taken in through the mouth. While air goes into the larynx and the respiratory system, food and liquid are directed into the tube leading to the stomach, the esophagus. Because food or liquid in the bronchial tubes or lungs could cause a blockage or lead to an infection, the airway is protected. The epiglottis is a leaf-like piece of cartilage extending upwards from the larynx. The epiglottis can close down over the larynx when someone is eating or drinking, preventing these food and liquids from entering the airway.

Epiglottitis is an infection and inflammation of the epiglottis. Because the epiglottis may swell considerably, there is a danger that the airway will be blocked off by the very structure designed to protect it. Air is then unable to reach the lungs. Without intervention, epiglottitis has the potential to be fatal.

Epiglottitis is primarily a disease of two to seven-year-old children, although older children and adults can also contract it. Boys are twice as likely as girls to develop this infection. Because epiglottitis involves swelling and infection of tissues, which are all located at or above the level of the epiglottis, it is sometimes referred to as supraglottitis (supra, meaning above). About 25% of all children with this infection also have pneumonia.

Causes and symptoms

The most common cause of epiglottitis is infection with the bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae type b. Other types of bacteria are also occasionally responsible for this infection, including some types of Streptococcus bacteria and the bacteria responsible for causing diphtheria.

A patient with epiglottitis typically experiences a sudden fever, and begins having severe throat and neck pain. Because the swollen epiglottis interferes significantly with air movement, every breath creates a loud, harsh, high-pitched sound referred to as stridor. Because the vocal cords are located in the larynx just below the area of the epiglottis, the swollen epiglottis makes the patient's voice sound muffled and strained. Swallowing becomes difficult, and the patient may drool. The patient often leans forward and juts out his or her jaw, while struggling for breath.

Epiglottitis strikes suddenly and progresses quickly. A child may begin complaining of a sore throat, and within a few hours be suffering from extremely severe airway obstruction.


Diagnosis begins with a high level of suspicion that a quickly progressing illness with fever, sore throat, and airway obstruction is very likely to be epiglottitis. If epiglottitis is suspected, no efforts should be made to look at the throat, or to swab the throat in order to obtain a culture for identification of the causative organism. These maneuvers may cause the larynx to go into spasm (laryngospasm), completely closing the airway. These procedures should only be performed in a fully-equipped operating room, so that if laryngospasm occurs, a breathing tube can be immediately placed in order to keep the airway open.

An instrument called a laryngoscope is often used in the operating room to view the epiglottis, which will appear cherry-red and quite swollen. An x-ray picture taken from the side of the neck should also be obtained. The swollen epiglottis has a characteristic appearance, called the "thumb sign."


Treatment almost always involves the immediate establishment of an artificial airway: inserting a breathing tube into the throat (intubation); or making a tiny opening toward the base of the neck and putting a breathing tube into the trachea (tracheostomy). Because the patient's apparent level of distress may not match the actual severity of the situation, and because the disease's progression can be quite surprisingly rapid, it is preferable to go ahead and place the artificial airway, rather than adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Because epiglottitis is caused by a bacteria, antibiotics such as cefotaxime, ceftriaxone, or ampicillin with sulbactam should be given through a needle placed in a vein (intravenously). This prevents the bacteria that are circulating throughout the bloodstream from causing infection elsewhere in the body.


With treatment (including the establishment of an artificial airway), only about 1% of children with epiglottitis die. Without the artificial airway, this figure jumps to 6%. Most patients recover form the infection, and can have the breathing tube removed (extubation) within a few days.


Prevention involves the use of a vaccine against H. influenzae type b (called the Hib vaccine). It is given to babies at two, four, six, and 15 months. Use of this vaccine has made epiglottitis a very rare occurrence.



Durand, Marlenel. "Laryngitis, Croup, and Epiglottitis." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Orenstein, David. "Acute Inflammatory Upper Airway Obstruction." In Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, ed. Richard E. Behrman. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1996.

Ray, C. George, and Kenneth J. Ryan. "Middle and Lower Respiratory Tract Infections." In Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. 3rd ed. Ed. Kenneth J. Ryan. Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1994.

Stoffman, Phyllis. The Family Guide to Preventing and Treating 100 Infectious Diseases. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.


American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Inc. One Prince St., Alexandria VA 22314-3357.(703) 836-4444. <http://www.entnet.org>.

Maureen Haggerty

Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD


Epiglottis—A leaf-like piece of cartilage extending upwards from the larynx, which can close like a lid over the trachea to prevent the airway from receiving any food or liquid being swallowed.

Extubation—Removal of a breathing tube.

Intubation—Putting a breathing tube into the airway.

Laryngospasm—Spasm of the larynx.

Larynx—The part of the airway lying between the pharynx and the trachea.

Nasopharynx—The part of the airway into which the nose leads.

Oropharynx—The part of the airway into which the mouth leads.

Supraglottitis—Another term for epiglottitis.

Trachea—The part of the airway that leads into the bronchial tubes.

Tracheostomy—A procedure in which a small opening is made in the neck and into the trachea. A breathing tube is then placed through this opening.

Additional topics

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