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Epiglottitis is inflammation of the epiglottis. Due to its place in the airway, swelling of this structure can interfere with breathing and constitutes a medical emergency.
Epiglottitis involves bacterial infection of the epiglottis, most often caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B, although some cases are attributable to Streptococcus pneumoniae or Streptococcus pyogenes.
Epiglottitis typically affects children, and is associated with fever, difficulty swallowing, drooling and stridor. The child often appears acutely ill, anxious, and has very quiet shallow breathing with the head held forward, insisting on sitting up in bed. The early symptoms are insidious but rapidly progressive, and swelling of the throat may lead to cyanosis and asphyxiation. Cases in adults are most typically seen amongst abusers of crack cocaine. George Washington is thought to have died of epiglottitis.
Diagnosis is confirmed by direct inspection using laryngoscopy. The epiglottis and arytenoids are cherry-red and swollen. The most likely differential diagnostic candidates are croup, peritonsillar abscess, and retropharyngeal abscess.
On lateral C-spine X-ray, the thumbprint sign is a finding that suggests the diagnosis of epiglottitis.
Epiglottitis requires urgent endotracheal intubation to protect the airway. Ideally, this should be performed by an experienced anesthesiologist or respiratory therapist, with otolaryngology back-up in case of failed intubation. If intubation fails, tracheostomy is required.
In addition, patients should be given an antibiotic drug such as ceftriaxone.
Some patients may develop pneumonia, lymphadenopathy or septic arthritis.
- ^ Jaffe JE. Acute Epiglottits. eMedicine.com. Available at: http://www.emedicine.com/Radio/topic263.htm. Accessed on: December 21, 2006.
- Jordana Marinoff, "Bacteria Grab a Windpipe and Hold it Hostage," Boston Globe, January 10, 2006