Vocal cord polyps are small, swollen lesions in the folds of mucus membranes of the vocal cord. They typically occur on one side of the vocal cord. If left untreated, they cause an increasing hoarseness of the voice. Vocal cord polyps develop from an injury to the vocal cord or from a chronic throat irritation. A change in voice for more than three weeks warrants an evaluation for polyps by a medical professional.
Consistent exposure to irritants, including tobacco smoke and industrial chemical fumes, can cause vocal cord polyps to develop. Recurring trauma to the vocal cord by loud singing, shouting or talking are known causes of polyp development. People with hypothyroidism, gastric reflux or allergies that impact the throat are also at risk to develop vocal cord polyps.
The primary symptom of vocal cord polyp is a slowly progressing hoarseness of the voice. The hoarseness can take years to develop enough to interfere with daily talking, though people who use their voice professionally, such as singers, might find that it progresses more quickly. In addition to hoarseness, the voice might take on a low, breathy quality.
Vocal cord polyps are diagnosed by visual examination. The physician will look at the vocal cord with a tool called a laryngoscope, which incorporates a mirror. If lesions are found during the examination, a biopsy is typically done at that time to rule out cancer.
Polyps are treated by surgical removal. After the polyps are removed, the patient is advised to avoid anything that might cause new ones to develop. This can mean changing voice patterns, stopping smoking or treatment maintenance for hypothyroidism or gastric reflux. If the polyps were caused by voice strain, the doctor might prescribe a voice therapist to teach the patient how to regulate speech and singing levels. There usually is a follow-up appointment with the surgeon to be sure the patient is healing properly.
Although whispering is often viewed as a gentle voice, it is actually hard on the vocal cord. Patients who have had polyps surgically removed should use a normal speaking voice and avoid whispering. Auctioneers, teachers and members of the clergy are all professions that place people at risk for vocal cord polyps. Voice training can help them prevent the chance of developing vocal cord polyps, but after the polyps have developed, the only treatment is surgery.