Hoarseness is the general term for changes in vocal tone, quality, volume, or pitch.
It’s not a condition in itself, but rather a symptom. For example, if you experience hoarseness after attending a concert, the actual reason for your hoarse voice is likely vocal cord strain. There are many possible reasons why you may have a voice that suddenly becomes raspy, strained, or breathy. Fortunately, most people respond well to self-care efforts.
But if hoarseness isn’t going away after a few weeks, it’s time to see what your doctor or a specialist has to say.
What Causes Hoarseness?
Vocal abuse is a common cause of hoarseness, as is the common cold and having an upper respiratory tract viral infection. Other times, irritation of the vocal cords in the larynx, or “voice box,” results in inflammation. This is a condition known as laryngitis, which can result in hoarseness. Additional reasons for having a hoarse-sounding voice may include:
- Vocal nodules, cysts or polyps
- Parkinson’s disease and similar neurological conditions
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- Vocal cord/throat cancer
- Inhaling respiratory tract irritants
- Throat or vocal cord trauma
- Thyroid-related issues
How Is a Diagnosis Made?
Making a diagnosis usually starts with an evaluation of your general health and a discussion of anything you may be aware of that could have caused your hoarseness – e.g., vocal strain, having a bad cold, exposure to airborne irritants, or experiencing coughing fits. A mirror or a flexible, lighted instrument called a laryngoscope may be used to view your throat, neck, and vocal cords. Vocal quality is typically evaluated as well. Tests performed may include a biopsy if cancer is suspected, a thyroid function test, and image tests if a better view of internal throat structures is needed.
How Is Hoarseness Treated?
Hoarseness cause by vocal overuse or an infection usually responds well to rest and modifications with how your voice is used. If coughing is aggravating the problem, you may be advised to use an over-the-counter cough suppressant. You may also be advised to stop smoking, change your diet habits, or take proper precautions if you work in conditions where you may be exposed to throat irritants.
Medication may be prescribed to manage GERD or allergy symptoms if either one of these issues is what’s contributing to your change in vocal tone. If a bacterial infection is discovered, antibiotics are usually prescribed. Surgery may be necessary if you have nodules or polyps on your vocal folds contributing to hoarseness. In extreme cases, vocal cord tissues might need to be removed if cancer is confirmed. Reconstructive surgery may be performed as well to restore vocal abilities.
Quitting smoking, staying hydrated, avoiding excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, and humidifying your home are just some of the steps you can take to prevent hoarseness not caused by an underlying condition. Also, avoid vocal abuse by singing or projecting properly if you regularly sing or speak professionally. Avoiding excessively spicy or acidic foods can be equally helpful, as can checking in with your doctor if hoarseness is accompanied by throat discomfort or other symptoms.