Q: A distant relative's child just had something called "epiglottitis." My mother said the doctor had to put a hole in his neck. Is this a strange new disease? I'm worried my son might get it.
A: Epiglottitis is not new, but fortunately it is relatively rare. The epiglottis is a thin flap of tissue beyond the back of the tongue that flops down to cover the opening into the trachea (the major airway that acts like a valve to guide food and drink into the stomach and to keep it out of the lungs. As soon as a swallow is over, the epiglottis moves off the airway so breathing can resume.
A particular type of bacteria, called Haemophilus influenzae, seems to infect the epiglottis of young children. A child with this infection, epiglottitis, usually gets very sick suddenly, has a high fever and a very sore throat, and has trouble swallowing, talking and breathing. Epiglottitis it a true emergency, because there is very little space for the child to breathe around the swollen epiglottis. If left untreated, the epiglottis may block the airway entirely, and the child will suffocate.