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Epiglottitis is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the epiglottis — a small cartilage "lid" that covers your windpipe — swells, blocking the flow of air into your lungs.

A number of factors can cause the epiglottis to swell — burns from hot liquids, direct injury to your throat and various infections. The most common cause of epiglottitis in children in the past was infection with Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), the same bacterium that causes pneumonia, meningitis and infections in the bloodstream. Epiglottitis can occur at any age.

Routine Hib vaccination for infants has made epiglottitis rare, but epiglottitis remains a concern. If you suspect that you or someone in your family has epiglottitis, seek emergency help immediately. Prompt treatment can prevent life-threatening complications.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Symptoms in children

In children, signs and symptoms of epiglottitis may develop within a matter of hours, including:

  • Fever
  • Severe sore throat
  • Abnormal, high-pitched sound when breathing in (stridor)
  • Difficult and painful swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Anxious, restless behavior
  • Greater comfort when sitting up or leaning forward

Symptoms in adults

For adults, signs and symptoms may develop more slowly, over days rather than hours. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Severe sore throat
  • Fever
  • A muffled or hoarse voice
  • Abnormal, high-pitched sound when breathing in (stridor)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing

When to see a doctor

Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. If you or someone you know suddenly has trouble breathing and swallowing, call your local emergency number or go to the nearest hospital emergency department. Try to keep the person quiet and upright, because this position may make it easier to breathe. Don't try to examine the person's throat yourself. This can make matters worse.

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