Epiglottis Function and Epiglottitis Causes and Treatments

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Yaneff_Epiglottis_300316The story of epiglottis function is quite an interesting one. The epiglottis is often called the trapdoor, or gatekeeper, of the throat. It’s a flexible flap that is one of nine cartilage structures that form your larynx at the base of the tongue.

The epiglottis is a yellow elastic cartilage structure that is covered with a mucous membrane. It’s shaped like a thin leaf and protects the opening between the vocal cords, which is also known as the entrance of the glottis.

How important is the epiglottis? Basically, when you swallow your food, the epiglottis folds over the glottis to stop food and liquids from reaching the windpipe, which is also called the trachea.
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Epiglottis Function: How Does it Work?

The epiglottis has a couple of key functions, mostly playing important roles in digestion and speech.

What Is the Function of the Epiglottis?

Epiglottis function while swallowing is very important. You want the food and liquids you swallow to go directly to your stomach and not make any other unpleasant stops along the way. The epiglottis is what allows that to happen, by making sure food enters the esophagus instead of obstructing the airways to the lungs; this prevents you from choking every time you eat or drink. Once you are finished, swallowing the epiglottis opens up again and allows for normal breathing.

So, how does the epiglottis function, exactly? There are two sets of muscles that control the movement of the larynx—extrinsic and intrinsic. The extrinsic muscles control the folding of the epiglottis and the laryngeal structure. Chewing your food and swallowing triggers movement from the extrinsic muscles that allow the larynx to move upward. Once food reaches the epiglottis, the extrinsic muscles relax, returning the epiglottis to an upright position, and air again passes through the larynx and into the trachea and lungs.

The epiglottis also plays a role in speech and the production of sound in certain languages. The glottis is the space between the vocal folds and arytenoid cartilages in the larynx, and the intrinsic muscles control the vocal cords and speech—essentially, the glottis is the opening to the larynx. It’s also the place where vocal tone is produced.

The epiglottis acts as an articulator to help produce pharyngeal consonants and vowels. In the pharyngeal area, the epiglottis articulates words against the posterior pharynx wall. Speech is then generated through a narrow opening of the epiglottis and the pharynx. When you pronounce vowels the opening between the pharynx and epiglottis becomes larger, and when you pronounce consonants it gets smaller. Whispering produces a greater retraction in the epiglottis when compared to normal speech.

What Are the Problems of the Epiglottis?

Similar to any other organ, there can be epiglottis problems that can lead to various health conditions. Food going down the wrong pipe, for example, is known as aspiration, and significant aspiration can sometimes lead to pneumonia and even strokes. An inflamed and swollen epiglottis is a major problem called epiglottitis (also known as supraglottitis), in which the airway becomes blocked.

Epiglottitis is now considered rare, but it was once very common in children aged two to six. An epiglottis infection in adults is also very rare today, but when it happens, it’s a very serious condition that can lead to difficulty breathing and possibly death—just because it’s rare doesn’t mean that epiglottis treatment in adults should be overlooked.

Another discomforting health issue is the development of ulcers in the epiglottis, which makes it difficult to swallow liquids and food. It also leads to a sore throat and blocked ears. These epiglottis lesions can make it painful to even swallow saliva.

What Are the Causes of Epiglottitis?

What causes an epiglottis infection? Epiglottitis is caused by infection due to Haemophilus influenza type B bacteria, which is also called “Hib.” Epiglottitis is now considered uncommon now that the Hib vaccine is a routine immunization given to children. Epiglottitis can also be caused from viral, fungal, and other bacterial infections that produce upper respiratory infections. Other organisms that cause epiglottitis include:

  • Haemophilus parainfluenzae;
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae;
  • Staphylococcus aureus;
  • The shingles virus (varicella zoster); and
  • Oral herpes (herpes simplex virus type 1).

A bacterial infection isn’t the only cause of epiglottitis—sometimes the causes are environmental. For example, heat damage can lead to an epiglottis inflammation, or an injury called thermal epiglottitis. This occurs from eating solid foods, drinking hot liquids, or using illegal drugs that require inhalation of metal pieces like crack pipes. Also, epiglottitis is sometimes caused by a blunt trauma to the throat or neck, an allergic reaction to food, or insect bites or stings.

What Are the Symptoms of Epiglottitis?

There are several epiglottitis symptoms associated with the condition. Epiglottitis will usually begin quickly, but it may take anywhere from a few hours to a few days in older children and adults. The following are signs and symptoms that you may notice with epiglottitis:

  • A severe sore throat, muffling, or changes in the voice like a hoarse voice;
  • Problems speaking and a high-pitched whistling sound while breathing;
  • Issues swallowing;
  • Problems breathing such as taking rapid, shallow breaths, and needing to lean forward to breathe;
  • A fast heart rate;
  • Discoloration of the skin;
  • A high temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and chills;
  • Drooling; and
  • Pulling the muscles inward from the neck or between the ribs while breathing.

Children may also experience certain epiglottitis symptoms as well, including sitting in a “sniffing position” with the body leaning forward and the head and nose tilted forward and upward. Other symptoms in children include anxiety, drooling, and irritability. An infant will also show similar signs and symptoms of epiglottitis, but they will likely also have a cough and a history of upper respiratory infections.

Natural Treatments to Cure Epiglottitis

What is the best swollen epiglottis treatment? Because of the seriousness of epiglottitis, it’s very important to consult with your doctor before taking any medication or natural remedy. The number-one epiglottis treatment for an infection involving difficulty breathing is immediate hospitalization. In this treatment method, the doctor will likely perform certain procedures to help you breathe including the insertion of a breathing tube (intubation), and the use of moistened or humidified oxygen.

The airways will then be monitored closely, and intravenous (IV) therapy of antibiotics will be started right away to help rid the body of the bacteria causing the infection. Other treatments for epiglottitis include steroid medications to reduce airway swelling, and IV fluids to help the person swallow again. Corticosteroids and epinephrine may also be used to decrease the epiglottitis symptoms.

That said, there are also natural swollen epiglottis treatment methods and antibacterial remedies that help treat and prevent epiglottitis. The following are some of the various natural remedies:

1. Vitamin C and Other Nutrients

Vitamin C with bioflavonoids can be used for many potential symptoms and causes of epiglottitis, including a severe sore throat, the shingles virus, and food allergies. Vitamin C is a very potent immune booster, and it can help naturally treat or prevent an epiglottis infection. Other nutrients that can help with the immune system include vitamin A, vitamin E, and zinc.

2. Remove Food Allergies and Sensitivities from Diet

Food allergies or sensitivities can also sometimes cause epiglottitis, so it’s a good idea to completely avoid these triggers. The most common food allergies include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, wheat, milk, soy, and eggs; however, other foods can also cause allergic reactions. Tests that can help determine food allergies include an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) or a food elimination diet, while food sensitivities can be tested with a meridian stress assessment test, bio-meridian test, or bio-analysis with bio-energetic testing.

3. Herbal Remedies

There are herbal remedies with antibacterial and antibiotic activity that can help with epiglottitis. Several studies have found medicinal herbs to be effective against upper respiratory infections, including strep throat and shingles. Logic suggests that certain herbs would also be a natural swollen epiglottis cure. Herbal remedies with antibiotic, antiviral, or antibacterial activity include goldenseal, licorice root, olive leaf extract, Echinacea, slippery elm, garlic, and oil of oregano. Eyebright and stinging nettle are also considered useful remedies when allergies cause epiglottitis.

4. Essential Oils

Essential oils can help ease breathing-related problems associated with epiglottitis, while also fighting infection and soothing the respiratory tract. Respiratory and epiglottis function–promoting essential oils include lemon, frankincense, eucalyptus, tea tree oil, lavender, bergamot, and peppermint.

5. Homeopathy

Homeopathy is effectively used for all types of sore throat conditions, including epiglottitis. Homeopathic remedies used for epiglottitis-related sore throats include aconitum napellus, phytolacca, lachesis muta, sulfur, apis mellifica, kali bichromicum, hepar sulphuris, belladonna, lycopodium, ferrum phosphoricum, mercurius solubilis, and mercurius vivus.

How to Prevent Epiglottitis

The most common prevention method against epiglottitis is the proper and regular vaccination against Hib for children. The adult Hib vaccination is not recommended unless the person has a serious immune-related medical condition such as cancer or sickle-cell anemia, or if they’ve had a procedure that affects the immune system, such as a splenectomy. To further prevent epiglottitis attacks, it’s recommended to avoid hot fluids such as coffee or tea, and hot and spicy foods such as chili or cayenne peppers. It’s also a good idea to contact your doctor right away to avoid further complications if you have a history of epiglottitis or have an injury to the throat or neck.

When to See a Doctor

Epiglottitis symptoms should be taken very seriously. If you see someone having trouble breathing or swallowing, don’t hesitate: this is an emergency and you should call 9-1-1 for immediate help, or go to the emergency department or intensive care unit of the local hospital. If this happens, it’s very important to keep the person upright and quiet, because it will make it easier for the person to breathe. And for that matter, it’s also a good idea that you remain calm while waiting for emergency services to arrive, and don’t examine the throat of the person having the epiglottis attack, as this may actually worsen the problem.

The signs and symptoms of epiglottitis that should lead straight to the emergency department include a sore throat combined with drooling, irritability, a fast heartbeat, trouble swallowing, a fever, a muffled voice, shortness of breath, and rapid and shallow breathing. The person will also appear very ill, and they will produce high-pitched sounds when breathing.

The epiglottis is a very important organ in the body, and it should be treated that way. Without it, breathing and eating would be impossible, and would lead to epiglottis problems like choking, to say the least. And, as mentioned, without properly treating epiglottitis, the condition can be fatal. Because of the seriousness of epiglottitis and other epiglottis infections, it’s important to follow up with your doctor on a regular basis. Most people’s symptoms will improve before leaving the hospital, but taking natural swollen epiglottis treatments will help prevent further hospital visits.


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Jon Yaneff, CNP

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Jon Yaneff is a holistic nutritionist and health researcher with a background in journalism. After years of a hectic on-the-go, fast food-oriented lifestyle as a sports reporter, Jon knew his life needed a change. He began interviewing influential people in the health and wellness industry and incorporating beneficial health and wellness information into his own life. Jon’s passion for his health led him to the certified nutritional practitioner (CNP) program at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. He graduated with first... Read Full Bio »