High risk and low prevalence diseases: Adult epiglottitis

Am J Emerg Med. 2022 Jul:57:14-20. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2022.04.018. Epub 2022 Apr 20.


Introduction: Adult epiglottitis is a serious condition that carries with it a high rate of morbidity and even mortality due to airway occlusion.

Objective: This review highlights the pearls and pitfalls of epiglottitis in adult patients, including diagnosis, initial resuscitation, and management in the emergency department (ED) based on current evidence.

Discussion: Epiglottitis is a life-threatening emergency that occurs more commonly in adults in the current medical era with vaccinations. Children present more commonly with acute respiratory distress and fever, while adults present most commonly with severe dysphagia in a subacute manner. Other symptoms may include drooling, muffled voice, and dyspnea. Streptococcus and Staphylococcus bacteria are the most common etiologies, but others include viral, fungal, caustic, thermal injuries, and autoimmune. Lateral neck radiographs assist in diagnosis, but they may be falsely negative. Visualization of the epiglottis is the key to diagnosis. Airway assessment and management are paramount, which has transitioned from direct laryngoscopy to flexible intubating endoscopy and video laryngoscopy with assistance from anesthesia and/or otolaryngology if available. Along with airway assessment, antibiotics should be administered. Corticosteroids and nebulized epinephrine are controversial but should be considered. Patients should be admitted to the intensive care setting for close airway observation or ventilatory management if intubated.

Conclusions: An understanding of epiglottitis can assist emergency clinicians in diagnosing and managing this potentially deadly disease.

Keywords: Airway; Dysphagia; Epiglottitis; Odynophagia; Otolaryngology; Supraglottitis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Airway Obstruction* / etiology
  • Child
  • Epiglottis
  • Epiglottitis* / diagnosis
  • Epiglottitis* / epidemiology
  • Epiglottitis* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Laryngoscopy / adverse effects
  • Prevalence