Defined as a noticeable change in the voice usually lasting for a few weeks or more, hoarseness can have many possible causes. It often results in a voice that sounds strained, breathy, or raspy. Some people also experience a noticeable change in pitch and tone or have some level of throat irritation. Causes of hoarseness can vary widely, from viral infection to cancer.
Minor occurrences of hoarseness may be due to vocal strain, overuse, a dry or irritated throat, or exposure to environmental pollutants. Laryngitis may be the result of vocal cord inflammation or a respiratory infection.
Persistent hoarseness is often due to masses, or lesions on the vocal cords themselves. Vocal cord polyps, cysts and nodules often are associated with voice overuse. Wart-like growths called vocal cord papilloma caused by HPV (human papilloma virus) may also include hoarseness as a symptom.
Laryngeal cancer, or throat cancer, also can cause persistent voice changes. Conditions where the vocal cord don’t move as they should such as vocal cord paralysis and other neurologic conditions also may be causes of hoarseness.
Determining the source of hoarseness starts with a thorough examination of the throat and vocal cords. Laryngoscopy is a procedure where a small camera is place through the mouth or nose to view the vocal cords. Stroboscopy uses specialized light timed to the vibration of the vocal cords to even further analyze anatomy.
Treatment for hoarseness depends on the cause. If the cause is severe vocal strain or the formation of nodules on the vocal cords, voice therapy may be recommended so a patient can learn how to take better care of their throat and voice. Surgery may be needed for lesions that persist despite therapy.
The risk of developing some degree of hoarseness is often greater for individuals who smoke or use other tobacco products. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day may also reduce instances of hoarseness. If allergies are the cause, avoiding known triggers often helps. Preventative steps may also include reducing regular consumption of alcoholic beverages and caffeine, reducing stomach acid production by avoiding excessively acidic foods, and increasing humidity in indoor environments.
If you have persistent hoarseness, you should be referred to a laryngologist, a specially trained ear, nose, and throat surgeon who specializes in care of the voice.