What is epiglottitis?

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Epiglottitis in children: Overview

Epiglottitis is pain and swelling of the epiglottis. The epiglottis is a flap of tissue at the back of the throat. It closes when you swallow. This prevents food and fluids from getting into the trachea, or windpipe.

The disease can be life-threatening. The swollen epiglottis can quickly block the windpipe. This makes breathing difficult.

Epiglottitis begins suddenly. A child with the disease appears very sick and has a fever and trouble breathing. Your child's voice may be muffled, and he or she may have trouble swallowing and may drool.

Different infections can cause the disease.

Epiglottitis

Epiglottitis is inflammation of the leaf-shaped lid of tissue (epiglottis) that is located over the opening to the large breathing tube leading to the lungs (trachea). This flap of tissue closes when a person swallows to prevent food and fluids from getting into the trachea.

Epiglottitis can be life-threatening because the inflamed and swollen epiglottis can rapidly block the trachea and make breathing difficult. Epiglottitis generally begins suddenly, without a previous upper respiratory infection.

Symptoms of epiglottitis may include:

  • Difficult or noisy breathing (stridor).
  • A high fever.
  • Drooling and trouble swallowing liquids.
  • A muffled voice.
  • Problems lying down. A child with epiglottitis usually prefers to sit up and lean forward with his or her head and jaw forward to breathe.

In the past, most cases of bacterial epiglottitis in children were caused by Haemophilus influenzae. This infection can be prevented with the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. Epiglottitis in children caused by Haemophilus influenzae is now very uncommon because of the vaccine. In adults, the cause is usually a strep infection.

A child with epiglottitis appears very sick and in distress. If a child has symptoms of epiglottitis, seek emergency care.

How can you care for epiglottitis in children?

  • If the doctor prescribed antibiotics for your child, give them as directed. Do not stop using them just because your child feels better. Your child needs to take the full course of antibiotics.

Epiglottitis in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has severe trouble breathing. Signs may include the chest sinking in, using belly muscles to breathe, or nostrils flaring while your child is struggling to breathe.
  • Your child has severe trouble swallowing. Signs may include drooling, or your child may refuse to eat or drink.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has new or worse symptoms of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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