What Is Dysphonia?

Lost Your Voice? What to Do About Chronic Hoarseness

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Whether it’s right before a work presentation or an audition for NBC’s The Voice, losing your ability to talk (or sing) can be a stressful ­— and sometimes painful ­— experience. But for people with dysphonia, defined loosely as hoarseness, losing your voice can be a longer lasting condition.

“Dysphonia typically affects people who overuse their voice because of their occupation,” says Daniel Ouellette, M.D., a pulmonologist with Henry Ford Health System. “Teachers, singers and even parents who have to raise their voice a lot might experience the condition.”

In March, Dr. Ouellette coauthored a new guideline for the treatment of dysphonia, which is characterized by altered vocal quality, pitch, loudness, or vocal effort that impairs communication and/or quality of life. Here’s an overview of the condition and Ouellette’s recommendations on how to alleviate it.

What Is Dysphonia?

According to the updated guideline on dysphonia, published by the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, dysphonia is characterized by a change in voice quality, pitch (how high or low the voice is), volume (loudness), or vocal effort that makes it difficult to communicate. A person with dysphonia may have a raspy, weak or airy quality to their voice that makes it hard to make smooth vocal sounds. Experts estimate that the condition affects nearly one-third of the population at some point in their lifetime.

What Causes It?

Most hoarseness is related to upper respiratory tract infection and goes away in seven to 10 days. If it doesn’t go away or improve in four weeks, however, you may have a serious medical condition that requires further evaluation by an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT). Other causes of hoarseness, according to the updated guideline, include:

  • Common cold, upper respiratory tract infection
  • Voice overuse (using your voice too much, too loudly, or for a long period of time)
  • Acid reflux
  • Allergic laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx due to allergies)
  • Smoking and secondhand smoke
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Medication side effects
  • Age-related changes for both men and women
  • Neurological conditions (examples: Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)
  • Intubation (process of inserting a tube through the mouth and into the airway) and postsurgical injury

How Can You Treat Hoarseness?

Most of the time, dysphonia can be cured by simply resting the voice, Dr. Ouellette says. But for cases that last more than four weeks, a direct laryngoscopy — a procedure that allows a physician to view the back of the throat — is typically administered by an ENT doctor. Depending on what the procedure finds, treatment options can include:

  • Voice therapy: A series of voice exercises led by a licensed speech-language pathologist
  • Corticosteroids: Used to reduce inflammatory lesions in the vocal chords
  • Surgery: Typically only necessary when a serious illness, like throat cancer, is present

More often than not, Dr. Ouellette stresses, the best way to alleviate hoarseness is to give your voice a rest. Of course, if you’ve rested it long enough and still have symptoms, it might be time to speak up and consult a physician.

To schedule an appointment with a Henry Ford doctor who can help with hoarseness, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936)

Dr. Daniel Ouellette is a pulmonologist, seeing patients at Henry Ford Hospital and Henry Ford Medical Center – Sterling Heights. He works closely with Henry Ford Department of Otolaryngology/Head & Neck Surgery, which was recently ranked among the top 25 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report on its 2017-18 Best Hospitals list.

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