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Odds are, you never thought twice about your epiglottis—until you saw the very alarming news that Sarah Silverman was hospitalized last week with a life-threatening medical condition called epiglottitis.
The comedian revealed on her Facebook page yesterday that she spent five days in the ICU, and feels “insanely lucky” to be alive. “Don’t even know why I went to the doctor, it was just a sore throat,” Silverman wrote.
Silverman is home now, and doing well. But you might be wondering (as we were), what exactly is epiglottitis? And can it happen to anyone? To find out more, we talked to Michael J. Pitman, MD, chief of the division of laryngology, department of otolaryngology at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
First, the basics: Your epiglottis is a small piece of cartilage at the top of your windpipe that “keeps food from going into your airway,” says Dr. Pitman, who did not treat Silverman. But an injury, or bacterial or viral infection can cause epiglottitis, an inflammation of that tissue. “You can imagine if it swells a lot, it will block your airway and you won’t be able to breathe. This can happen very rapidly, which is why it’s so dangerous.”
Thankfully, epiglottitis is also quite rare. A 2010 study found there are about 4,000 cases in the United States each year. (The researchers determined that a typical patient is a white man in his mid-40s who’s suffering from other health conditions as well.) However, says Dr. Pitman, epiglottitis is “something doctors have on their radar when someone says ‘I’m not feeling great’ and ‘I’m having a hard time breathing.'”
He hopes people will learn from Silverman’s Facebook post: “She felt strange and went to the hospital and was taken care of and is now safe,” he says. If you ever feel “fullness” or irritation in your throat, and start to have trouble breathing, don’t delay seeking help, hoping the discomfort will go away. Head straight to the ER, says Dr. Pitman.
Caught early, epiglottitis can be treated with steroids or epinephrine, to bring the swelling down. In more severe cases, a tracheotomy or intubation is necessary. “Breathing difficulties shouldn’t be taken lightly. Things can change rapidly,” Dr. Pitman warns. “So when you have a problem, go to the hospital early. Don’t wait.”