|Hoarseness is a general term that describes abnormal voice changes. When hoarse, the voice may sound breathy, raspy, strained, or there may be changes in volume (loudness) or pitch (how high or low the voice is). The changes in sound are usually due to disorders related to the vocal cords that are the sound producing parts of the voice box (larynx). While breathing, the vocal cords remain apart. When speaking or singing, they come together, and as air leaves the lungs, they vibrate, producing sound. Swelling or lumps on the vocal cords prevent them from coming together properly and changes the way the cords vibrate, which makes a change in the voice, altering quality, volume, and pitch.
What Are the Causes?
Laryngopharyngeal Reflux: A common cause of hoarseness is laryngopharyngeal reflux, when stomach acid comes up the swallowing tube (esophagus) and irritates the vocal cords. Many patients with reflux-related changes of voice do not have symptoms of heartburn. Usually, the voice is worse in the morning and improves during the day. These people may have a sensation of a lump in their throat, mucus sticking in their throat or an excessive desire to clear their throat.
Smoking: Smoking is another cause of hoarseness. Since smoking is the major cause of throat cancer, if smokers are hoarse, they should see an otolaryngologist.
Other Causes: Many unusual causes for hoarseness include allergies, thyroid problems, neurological disorders, trauma to the voice box, and occasionally, the normal menstrual cycle.
How Is Hoarseness Evaluated?
These procedures are not uncomfortable and are well tolerated by most patients. In some cases, special tests (known as acoustic analysis) designed to evaluate the voice, may be recommended. These measure voice irregularities, how the voice sounds, airflow, and other characteristics that are helpful in establishing a diagnosis and guiding treatment
When should I see an otolaryngologist (ENT doctor)?
How Are Vocal Disorders Treated?
The treatment of hoarseness depends on the cause. Most hoarseness can be treated by simply resting the voice or modifying how it is used. The otolaryngologist may make some recommendations about voice use behavior, refer the patient to other voice team members, and in some instances recommend surgery if a lesion, such as a polyp, is identified. Avoidance of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke (passive smoking) is recommended to all patients. Drinking fluids and possibly using medications to thin the mucus are also helpful.
Specialists in speech/language pathology (voice therapists) are trained to assist patients in behavior modification that may help eliminate some voice disorders. Patients who have developed bad habits, such as smoking or overuse of their voice by yelling and screaming, benefit most from this conservative approach. The speech/language pathologist may teach patients to alter their method of speech production to improve the sound of the voice and to resolve problems, such as vocal nodules. When a patients’ problem is specifically related to singing, a singing teacher may help improve the patients’ singing techniques.