Voice Problems

Topic Overview

What are voice problems?

Voice problems usually include pain or discomfort when you speak or difficulty controlling the pitch, loudness, or quality of your voice.

As you exhale, air gently passes through your throat, across your open vocal cords, and out your mouth and nose. When you speak, your vocal cords close partially as air travels through them, causing vibrations and the unique sound of your voice. Your voice is the result of remarkable and complex interactions involving several body parts—especially the lungs, voice box (larynx), and mouth. Damage to any of these body parts can lead to a voice problem.

What causes voice problems?

Anyone can develop a voice problem, but your risk is greatest if your job puts a high demand on your vocal cords. For example, singers, preachers, and teachers have high-risk jobs. Aging also strains the vocal cords. If you scream or talk loudly, you increase your risk for voice problems. If you have ever had surgery on or near your vocal cords, are a smoker, or have had throat cancer, your risk for developing scar tissue and future voice problems increases as well.

What are the symptoms?

Typically, symptoms that mean you may have a voice problem include:

  • A low, raspy, or rough voice.
  • Hoarseness that continues for more than 2 or 3 weeks.
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing, especially if you also have ear pain.
  • Coughing or choking when you swallow.
  • Frequent throat clearing or the sensation that you have a lump in your throat.

How are voice problems diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose a voice problem using information from a medical history and by doing a physical exam. Other tests may be done to evaluate vocal cord vibration or to detect suspicious areas in your throat. Additional testing doesn't necessarily mean you have a serious voice problem—it just helps your doctor pinpoint the cause of your voice problem.

How are they treated?

For many voice problems, resting your vocal cords is all that is needed, although this can be difficult for some people. If you have a more serious or chronic voice problem, you may need medicines, surgery, voice therapy, or a combination of these. Treatment frequently succeeds in restoring the voice to normal. But it may take some time for your voice to return to normal, depending on the severity and cause of your voice problem.

Is your voice change serious?

You might be one of those people who gets laryngitis every time you get the common cold. This is temporary and usually not serious. If your voice problem is accompanied by a cold and goes away within 2 to 3 weeks after your cold or flu is gone, it's probably nothing serious. If you feel concerned, you may want to see your doctor just to make sure.

But when unexplained changes in your voice continue for more than 2 or 3 weeks or interfere with your ability to communicate, you may have a more serious problem. For some people, the changes might get better but then reappear.

If you notice a change in your voice or if your voice problems get better but then come back, it's worth making an appointment with your doctor for further evaluation.

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS)
1650 Diagonal Road
Alexandria, VA  22314-2857
Phone: (703) 836-4444
Web Address: www.entnet.org
 

The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) is the world's largest organization of physicians dedicated to the care of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) disorders. Its Web site includes information for the general public on ENT disorders.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Akst L (2011). Hoarseness and laryngitis. In ET Bope et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 223–228. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Lustig LR, Schindler JS (2012). Ear, nose, and throat disorders. In SJ McPhee, MA Papadakis, eds., 2012 C urrent Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 51st ed., pp. 196–237. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Swartz SR, et al. (2009). Clinical practice guideline: Hoarseness (dysphonia). Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 141(3, Suppl 2): S1–S31.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Donald R. Mintz, MD - Otolaryngology
Current as of May 28, 2013

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