Hoarseness is characterized by a voice that is abnormally deep, scratchy, raspy, or breathy. It may strain or break at times. It occurs when a disorder of the vocal folds causes alterations to voice quality, volume, and pitch.

Causes of Hoarseness

Normally, when we speak the air leaving our lungs causes the vocal cords to vibrate, producing sound. When the vocal cords are swollen or inflamed, these vibrations are hindered, causing the voice to take on a hoarse quality.

The most common cause of hoarseness is acute laryngitis. This is a swelling of the vocal cords brought on by a cold, upper respiratory tract infection, or voice strain. Continuing to use your voice when suffering from acute laryngitis can cause serious, permanent injury to the vocal folds.

Other causes include misuse or abuse of the vocal cords, benign vocal cord lesions (e.g. polyps, nodules, cysts), GERD (acid reflux), vocal fold hemorrhaging, injury or trauma to the voice box, neurological disorders, thyroid problems, allergies, and cancer.

Treatment & Prevention

Treatment varies depending on the cause of your hoarseness. The most important thing to remember is to rest your voice; excessive use can cause vocal cord damage and prolong your symptoms. Avoid whispering as well as speaking; this can cause just as much strain. Keep hydrated by drinking lots of fluids, and avoid cigarettes or secondhand smoke. Consider using a humidifier. If the condition reoccurs frequently, seek professional voice training.

Medical treatment options include surgery, medications, and vocal cord retraining exercises.

The key to prevention is learning how to use your voice properly. Don’t use your voice for too long or speak too loudly; when addressing a large audience, use a microphone for proper amplification. Avoid shouting, whispering, and excessive throat clearing. Dietary and lifestyle changes (eliminating spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine; quitting smoking) are often beneficial.