Epiglottitis is an inflammation
Inflammation is part of the complex biological response of vascular tissues to harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, damaged cells, or irritants. Inflammation is a protective attempt by the organism to remove the injurious stimuli and to initiate the healing process...

 of the epiglottis
The epiglottis is a flap that is made of elastic cartilage tissue covered with a mucous membrane, attached to the entrance of the larynx. It projects obliquely upwards behind the tongue and the hyoid bone, pointing dorsally. The term, like tonsils, is often incorrectly used to refer to the uvula...

 - the flap that sits at the base of the tongue
The tongue is a muscular hydrostat on the floors of the mouths of most vertebrates which manipulates food for mastication. It is the primary organ of taste , as much of the upper surface of the tongue is covered in papillae and taste buds. It is sensitive and kept moist by saliva, and is richly...

, which keeps food from going into the trachea
Trachea may refer to:* Vertebrate trachea, or windpipe, in terrestrial vertebrates, such as birds and mammals* Invertebrate trachea, in terrestrial invertebrates, such as insects and crustaceans* Vessel elements in plants...

 (windpipe). Due to its place in the airway
The pulmonary airway comprises those parts of the respiratory system through which air flows, conceptually beginning at the nose and mouth, and terminating in the alveoli...

, swelling of this structure can interfere with breathing and constitutes a medical emergency
Medical emergency
A medical emergency is an injury or illness that is acute and poses an immediate risk to a person's life or long term health. These emergencies may require assistance from another person, who should ideally be suitably qualified to do so, although some of these emergencies can be dealt with by the...

. The infection can cause the epiglottis to either obstruct or completely close off the windpipe.

With the advent of the Hib vaccine
Hib vaccine
Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine is a conjugate vaccine developed for the prevention of invasive disease caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the use of the Hib vaccine. Due to routine use of the Hib vaccine in...

, the incidence
Incidence (epidemiology)
Incidence is a measure of the risk of developing some new condition within a specified period of time. Although sometimes loosely expressed simply as the number of new cases during some time period, it is better expressed as a proportion or a rate with a denominator.Incidence proportion is the...

 has been reduced, but the condition has not been eliminated.

Signs and symptoms

Epiglottitis typically affects children, and is associated with fever
Fever is a common medical sign characterized by an elevation of temperature above the normal range of due to an increase in the body temperature regulatory set-point. This increase in set-point triggers increased muscle tone and shivering.As a person's temperature increases, there is, in...

, difficulty in swallowing
Dysphagia is the medical term for the symptom of difficulty in swallowing. Although classified under "symptoms and signs" in ICD-10, the term is sometimes used as a condition in its own right. Sufferers are sometimes unaware of their dysphagia....

, drooling, hoarseness of voice, and stridor
Stridor is a high pitched wheezing sound resulting from turbulent air flow in the upper airway. Stridor is a physical sign which is produced by narrow or obstructed airway path. It can be inspiratory, expiratory or biphasic . Inspiratory stridor is common...

. It is important to note however that since the introduction of the Hemophilus influenzae vaccination in many Western countries (including the UK) has lowered childhood incidence while adult incidence has remained the same, the disease is becoming relatively more common in adults than children. The child often appears acutely ill, anxious, and has very quiet shallow breathing with the head held forward, insisting on sitting up in bed. The early symptoms are insidious but rapidly progressive, and swelling of the throat may lead to cyanosis
Cyanosis is the appearance of a blue or purple coloration of the skin or mucous membranes due to the tissues near the skin surface being low on oxygen. The onset of cyanosis is 2.5 g/dL of deoxyhemoglobin. The bluish color is more readily apparent in those with high hemoglobin counts than it is...

 and asphyxiation. Cases in adults are most typically seen amongst abusers of crack cocaine
Crack cocaine
Crack cocaine is the freebase form of cocaine that can be smoked. It may also be termed rock, hard, iron, cavvy, base, or just crack; it is the most addictive form of cocaine. Crack rocks offer a short but intense high to smokers...

 and have a more subacute presentation. George Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

 is thought to have died of epiglottitis.


Epiglottitis involves bacteria
Bacteria are a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria have a wide range of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals...

l infection
An infection is the colonization of a host organism by parasite species. Infecting parasites seek to use the host's resources to reproduce, often resulting in disease...

 of the epiglottis, most often caused by Haemophilus influenzae
Haemophilus influenzae
Haemophilus influenzae, formerly called Pfeiffer's bacillus or Bacillus influenzae, Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium first described in 1892 by Richard Pfeiffer during an influenza pandemic. A member of the Pasteurellaceae family, it is generally aerobic, but can grow as a facultative anaerobe. H...

type B, although some cases are attributable to Streptococcus pneumoniae
Streptococcus pneumoniae
Streptococcus pneumoniae, or pneumococcus, is Gram-positive, alpha-hemolytic, aerotolerant anaerobic member of the genus Streptococcus. A significant human pathogenic bacterium, S...

, Streptococcus agalactiae
Streptococcus agalactiae
Streptococcus agalactiae is a beta-hemolytic Gram-positive streptococcus.- Identification :The CAMP test is an important test for identification...

, Staphylococcus aureus
Staphylococcus aureus
Staphylococcus aureus is a facultative anaerobic Gram-positive coccal bacterium. It is frequently found as part of the normal skin flora on the skin and nasal passages. It is estimated that 20% of the human population are long-term carriers of S. aureus. S. aureus is the most common species of...

, and Streptococcus pyogenes
Streptococcus pyogenes
Streptococcus pyogenes is a spherical, Gram-positive bacterium that is the cause of group A streptococcal infections. S. pyogenes displays streptococcal group A antigen on its cell wall. S...



Diagnosis is the identification of the nature and cause of anything. Diagnosis is used in many different disciplines with variations in the use of logics, analytics, and experience to determine the cause and effect relationships...

 is confirmed by direct inspection using laryngoscopy
Laryngoscopy is a medical procedure that is used to obtain a view of the vocal folds and the glottis. Laryngoscopy may be performed to facilitate tracheal intubation during general anesthesia or cardiopulmonary resuscitation or for procedures on the larynx or other parts of the upper...

, although this may provoke airway spasm
In medicine a spasm is a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle, a group of muscles, or a hollow organ, or a similarly sudden contraction of an orifice. It is sometimes accompanied by a sudden burst of pain, but is usually harmless and ceases after a few minutes...

. If it is suspected, attempts to visualise the epiglottis using a tongue depressor
Tongue depressor
A tongue depressor is a device used in medical practice to depress the tongue to allow for examination of the mouth and throat. The most common modern tongue depressors have thin wooden blade, smoothed and rounded at both ends, but historically tongue depressors have been made of a variety of...

 are STRONGLY discouraged for this reason. A paediatric, anaesthesia or ENT
Otolaryngology or ENT is the branch of medicine and surgery that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose, throat, and head and neck disorders....

 specialist should be alerted immediately. Imaging is rarely useful, and treatment should not be delayed for this test to be carried out.

The epiglottis and arytenoids are cherry-red and swollen. The most likely differential diagnostic
Differential diagnosis
A differential diagnosis is a systematic diagnostic method used to identify the presence of an entity where multiple alternatives are possible , and may also refer to any of the included candidate alternatives A differential diagnosis (sometimes abbreviated DDx, ddx, DD, D/Dx, or ΔΔ) is a...

 candidates are croup
Croup is a respiratory condition that is usually triggered by an acute viral infection of the upper airway. The infection leads to swelling inside the throat, which interferes with normal breathing and produces the classical symptoms of a "barking" cough, stridor, and hoarseness...

, peritonsillar abscess
Peritonsillar abscess
Peritonsillar abscess , also called a quinsy or abbreviated as PTA is a recognised complication of tonsillitis and consists of a collection of pus beside the tonsil .-Symptoms and signs:...

, and retropharyngeal abscess
Retropharyngeal abscess
Most commonly seen in infants and young children, retropharyngeal abscess is an abscess located in the tissues in the back of the throat behind the posterior pharyngeal wall . Because RPA's typically occur in deep tissue, they are difficult to diagnose by physical examination alone...


On lateral C-spine X-ray
X-radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation. X-rays have a wavelength in the range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz and energies in the range 120 eV to 120 keV. They are shorter in wavelength than UV rays and longer than gamma...

, the thumbprint sign
Thumbprint sign
In radiology, the thumbprint sign is a finding on a lateral C-spine radiograph that suggests the diagnosis of epiglottitis. The sign is caused by a thickened free edge of the epiglottis, which causes it to appear more radiopaque than normal, resembling the distal thumb.In an abdominal x-ray,...

 (or just "thumb sign") describes a swollen enlarged epiglottis.


Epiglottitis may require urgent tracheal intubation
Tracheal intubation
Tracheal intubation, usually simply referred to as intubation, is the placement of a flexible plastic or rubber tube into the trachea to maintain an open airway or to serve as a conduit through which to administer certain drugs...

 to protect the airway, though this is not always the case. In some cases, epiglottitis requires the use of antibiotics while a patient is experiencing the benefits of a breathing tube. In more serious cases, tracheal intubation is necessary. In such cases, it is not advised to immediately head in the direction of intubation because the inflamed epiglottis is very sensitive and the care provider may irritate the epiglottis with the laryngoscope, causing the epiglottis to close off completely, forcing the use of a surgical airway (cricothyrotomy
A cricothyrotomy is an incision made through the skin and cricothyroid membrane to establish a patent airway during certain life-threatening situations, such as airway obstruction by a foreign body, angioedema, or massive...

). Most children can be managed by letting the child be in a position of comfort, keeping the lights down low and keeping the child calm. Intubation may become necessary if the child starts to rapidly decompensate
In medicine, decompensation is the functional deterioration of a previously working structure or system. Decompensation may occur due to fatigue, stress, illness, or old age. When a system is "compensated," it is able to function despite stressors or defects. Decompensation describes an inability...

 and show signs of impending respiratory arrest
Respiratory arrest
Respiratory arrest is the cessation of breathing. It is a medical emergency and it usually is related to or coincides with a cardiac arrest. Causes include opiate overdose, head injury, anaesthesia, tetanus, or drowning...

 (decreased work of breathing with abnormal skin signs) given in the initial stages to reduce symptoms, but this will not treat the underlying cause. It should also be noted that if stridor
Stridor is a high pitched wheezing sound resulting from turbulent air flow in the upper airway. Stridor is a physical sign which is produced by narrow or obstructed airway path. It can be inspiratory, expiratory or biphasic . Inspiratory stridor is common...

 becomes quieter, obstruction is likely to follow, and thus intubation should be expedited even further.

In addition, patients should be given antibiotic
An antibacterial is a compound or substance that kills or slows down the growth of bacteria.The term is often used synonymously with the term antibiotic; today, however, with increased knowledge of the causative agents of various infectious diseases, antibiotic has come to denote a broader range of...

s such as second- or third-generation cephalosporins
The cephalosporins are a class of β-lactam antibiotics originally derived from Acremonium, which was previously known as "Cephalosporium".Together with cephamycins they constitute a subgroup of β-lactam antibiotics called cephems.-Medical use:...

 (either alone or in combination with penicillin
Penicillin is a group of antibiotics derived from Penicillium fungi. They include penicillin G, procaine penicillin, benzathine penicillin, and penicillin V....

 or ampicillin
Ampicillin is a beta-lactam antibiotic that has been used extensively to treat bacterial infections since 1961. Until the introduction of ampicillin by the British company Beecham, penicillin therapies had only been effective against Gram-positive organisms such as staphylococci and streptococci...

 for streptococcal
Streptococcus is a genus of spherical Gram-positive bacteria belonging to the phylum Firmicutes and the lactic acid bacteria group. Cellular division occurs along a single axis in these bacteria, and thus they grow in chains or pairs, hence the name — from Greek στρεπτος streptos, meaning...



Some patients may develop pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung—especially affecting the microscopic air sacs —associated with fever, chest symptoms, and a lack of air space on a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is typically caused by an infection but there are a number of other causes...

, lymphadenopathy
Lymphadenopathy is a term meaning "disease of the lymph nodes." It is, however, almost synonymously used with "swollen/enlarged lymph nodes". It could be due to infection, auto-immune disease, or malignancy....

, or septic arthritis
Septic arthritis
Septic arthritis is the purulent invasion of a joint by an infectious agent which produces arthritis. People with artificial joints are more at risk than the general population but have slightly different symptoms, are infected with different organisms and require different treatment. Septic...


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