Laryngoscopy is an examination that lets your doctor look at the back of your throat, your voice box (larynx), and vocal cords with a scope (laryngoscope). There are two types of laryngoscopy, and each uses different equipment.
Indirect laryngoscopy is done in a doctor's office using a small hand mirror held at the back of the throat. Your doctor shines a light in your mouth and wears a mirror on his or her head to reflect light to the back of your throat. Some doctors now use headgear with a bright light.
Indirect laryngoscopy is not done as much now because flexible laryngoscopes let your doctor see better and are more comfortable for you.
Direct fiber-optic (flexible or rigid) laryngoscopy
Direct laryngoscopy lets your doctor see deeper into your throat. The scope is either flexible or rigid. Flexible scopes show the throat better and are more comfortable for you. Rigid scopes are often used in surgery.
Why It Is Done
An indirect or direct laryngoscopy helps a doctor:
- Find the cause of voice problems, such as a breathy voice, hoarse voice, weak voice, or no voice.
- Find the cause of throat and ear pain.
- Find the cause for trouble swallowing, a feeling of a lump in the throat, or mucus with blood in it.
- Check injuries to the throat, narrowing of the throat (strictures), or blockages in the airway.
Direct rigid laryngoscopy may be used as a surgical procedure to remove foreign objects in the throat, collect tissue samples (biopsy), remove polyps from the vocal cords, or perform laser treatment. Direct rigid laryngoscopy may also be used to help find cancer of the voice box (larynx).
How To Prepare
Indirect laryngoscopy and direct flexible laryngoscopy
If you wear dentures, you will remove them just before the examination.
Direct rigid laryngoscopy
Before a rigid laryngoscopy, tell your doctor if you:
- Are allergic to any medicines, including anesthetics.
- Are taking any medicines.
- Take a blood thinner, or if you have had bleeding problems.
- Have heart problems.
- Are or might be pregnant.
- Have had surgery or radiation treatments to your mouth or throat.
Rigid laryngoscopy is done with a general anesthetic. Do not eat or drink for 8 hours before the procedure. If you have this test in your doctor's office or at a surgery center, arrange to have someone drive you home after the procedure.
You will be asked to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of the test and agree to have it done.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form .
How It Is Done
Indirect laryngoscopy and direct flexible laryngoscopy examinations are generally done in a doctor's office. Most fiber-optic laryngoscopies are done by an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT). You may be awake for the examination.
You will sit straight up in a chair and stick out your tongue as far as you can. The doctor will hold your tongue down with some gauze. This lets the doctor see your throat more clearly. If you gag easily, the doctor may spray a numbing medicine (local anesthetic) into your throat to help with the gaggy feeling.
The doctor will hold a small mirror at the back of your throat and shine a light into your mouth. He or she will wear a head mirror to reflect the light to the back of your throat. Or your doctor may wear headgear with a bright light hooked to it. He or she may ask you to make a high-pitched "e-e-e-e" sound or a low-pitched "a-a-a-a" sound. Making these noises helps the doctor see your vocal cords.
The examination takes 5 to 10 minutes.
If a local (topical) anesthetic is used during the examination, the numbing effect of the anesthetic will last about 30 minutes. You can eat or drink when your throat is no longer numb.
Direct flexible laryngoscopy
The doctor will use a thin, flexible scope to look at your throat. You may get a medicine to dry up the secretions in your nose and throat. This lets your doctor see more clearly. A topical anesthetic may be sprayed on your throat to numb it.
The scope is put in your nose and then gently moved down into your throat. As the scope is passed down your throat, your doctor may spray more medicine to keep your throat numb during the examination. The doctor may also swab or spray a medicine inside your nose that opens your nasal passages to give a better view of your airway.
Direct rigid laryngoscopy
Before you have a rigid laryngoscopy, remove all your jewelry, dentures, and eyeglasses. You will empty your bladder before the examination. You will be given a cloth or paper gown to wear.
Direct rigid laryngoscopy is done in a surgery room. You will go to sleep (general anesthetic) and not feel the scope in your throat.
You will lie on your back during this procedure. After you are asleep, the rigid laryngoscope is put in your mouth and down your throat. Your doctor will be able to see your voice box (larynx) and vocal cords.
The rigid laryngoscope may also be used to remove foreign objects in the throat, collect tissue samples (biopsy), remove polyps from the vocal cords, or perform laser treatment.
The examination takes 15 to 30 minutes. You may get an ice pack to use on your throat to prevent swelling. After the procedure, you will be watched by a nurse for a few hours until you are fully awake and able to swallow.
- Do not eat or drink anything for about 2 hours after a laryngoscopy or until you are able to swallow without choking. You can then start with sips of water. When you feel ready, you can eat a normal diet.
- Do not clear your throat or cough hard for several hours after the laryngoscopy.
- If your vocal cords were affected during the laryngoscopy, rest your voice completely for 3 days.
- If you speak, do so in your normal tone of voice and do not talk for very long. Whispering or shouting can strain your vocal cords as they are trying to heal.
- You may sound hoarse for about 3 weeks after the laryngoscopy if tissue was removed.
- If nodules or other lesions were removed from your vocal cords, you may have to follow total voice rest (no talking, whispering, or making any other voice sounds) for up to 2 weeks.
How It Feels
You may feel like gagging when the mirror is placed in your throat. It may be uncomfortable when the doctor pulls on your tongue. If this becomes painful, signal your doctor by pointing to your tongue, since you will not be able to speak. If a spray anesthetic is used, it tastes bitter, it can make you feel like your throat is swollen, and it may make you feel that it is hard to swallow.
Direct flexible laryngoscopy
It may feel strange to have the doctor put the scope up your nose. But it should not hurt and you will still be able to breathe. If a spray anesthetic is used, it may taste bitter. The anesthetic can also make you feel like your throat is swollen. You can swallow normally but you may not feel it.
Direct rigid laryngoscopy
You will be asleep and feel nothing during the laryngoscopy. After the procedure, you may have some nausea, general muscle aches, and may feel tired for 1 to 2 days. You also may have a sore throat and sound hoarse. Suck on throat lozenges or gargle with warm salt water to help your sore throat.
If your child is having this procedure, the same is also true. If your child has a sore throat and is age 4 or older, you can give him or her throat lozenges. Also, a child age 8 or older can gargle with warm salt water.
If a biopsy was taken, it is normal to spit up a small amount of blood after the laryngoscopy. Talk to your doctor about how much bleeding to expect and how long the bleeding may last. Call your doctor immediately if:
- You have a lot of bleeding or if the bleeding lasts for 24 hours.
- You have any trouble breathing.
All types of laryngoscopy have a small chance of causing swelling and blocking the airway. If you have a partially blocked airway because of tumors, polyps, or severe inflammation of the tissues at the back of the throat (epiglottitis), you may have a higher chance of problems.
If complete blockage of the airway occurs, which is rare, your doctor may need to put a tube in your throat to help you breathe. Or, very rarely, your doctor may have to make a cut (incision) in your neck (a tracheotomy).
If a biopsy was taken, there is a very small chance of bleeding, infection, or a tear in the airway.
Laryngoscopy is an examination that lets your doctor look at the back of your throat, your voice box (larynx), and vocal cords with a scope (laryngoscope). If a biopsy was done, it may take several days for your doctor to know the results.
The throat (larynx) does not have swelling, an injury, narrowing (strictures), or foreign bodies. Your vocal cords do not have scar tissue, growths (tumors), or signs of not moving correctly (paralysis).
Your larynx has inflammation, injury, strictures, tumors, or foreign bodies. Your vocal cords have scar tissue or signs of paralysis.
What Affects the Test
If you gag easily, your doctor may need to do a direct rigid laryngoscopy.
What To Think About
- Direct rigid laryngoscopy is generally recommended for:
- People who gag easily because of abnormalities in their throat structure.
- People who may have symptoms of laryngeal or pharyngeal disease.
- People who have not responded to treatment for laryngeal symptoms.
Other Works Consulted
- Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.
- Weinberger PM, Terris DJ (2010). Otolaryngology—Head and neck surgery. In GM Doherty, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Surgery, 13th ed., pp. 224–258. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: April 15, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Donald R. Mintz, MD, FRCSC - Otolaryngology