Acute epiglottis in adults.Swiss Med Wkly. 2002 Oct 12; 132(37-38):541-7.SM
Acute epiglottitis can be a serious life-threatening disease because of its potential for sudden upper airway obstruction. It is a well-recognised entity in children but it is uncommon in adults and therefore is often misdiagnosed. In this retrospective study we present twelve cases of acute epiglottitis in adults. The diagnosis was made by visualisation of the epiglottis using fibreoptic laryngoscopy. The illness was managed using a standardised management protocol (see Appendix). The most frequent symptoms were odynophagia (100%), inability to swallow secretions (83%), sore throat (67%), dyspnoea (58%) and hoarseness (50%). Body temperature was elevated (>37.2 degrees C) in 75% and 50% of the patients had tachycardia (>100 bpm). The supposedly typical sign of stridor was found in only 42% of the cases. A routine oropharyngeal examination does not exclude epiglottitis, 44% of our patients had a normal oropharynx and the diagnosis could only be made following fibreoptic laryngoscopy. Nasotracheal intubation was necessary in four patients. A 40-year-old man with sore throat, hoarseness, cough and odynophagia was initially seen by a physician. With the suspected diagnosis of an infection - induced exacerbation of bronchial asthma, he was treated with antibiotics, paracetamol und corticosteroids. On admission six hours later the patient was in coma. The diagnosis was not made until conventional oral endotracheal intubation (without a tracheotomy set placed at the bedside) was attempted. Unfortunately the intubation failed and the patient died. Medical management of epiglottitis in adults includes an antibiotics, NSAIDs and possibly inhalation with adrenaline. The maintenance of an adequate open airway is the main concern in adults as well as in children. Although most adults have no signs of airway obstruction, the clinical threshold for insertion of an airway should remain low, as it is the only way of preventing death. A high index of suspicion is needed to recognise this rare disease correctly and patients must be admitted to a hospital with intensive care facilities, where the diagnosis can be confirmed and intubation performed if necessary and thus reduce the mortality rate.