Comedian Sarah Silverman had a very unfunny episode last week when she contracted a rare condition that she says almost killed her.
Sarah took to Facebook yesterday, writing that she’s “insanely lucky to be alive” after landing in the ICU. What she thought was just a sore throat turned out to be a freak case of “epiglottitis,” which causes the small piece of cartilage that covers your windpipe to swell and block your lungs.
“Epiglottitis is an extremely rare condition, but one that scares every ER doctor,” says Darria Gillespie, M.D., a board-certified emergency physician in Atlanta. It's caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenza, which most people are vaccinated against as babies. (Here's a reminder of why it's important to get your shots.) “By the time patients come to the ER with this, they’re typically very sick, and you have a very short window before their airway could become fully blocked,” says Gillespie.
The life-threatening condition typically starts out with a seemingly harmless sore throat, just like Sarah described. “Over 12 to 24 hours, it will progress, and you’ll develop symptoms that make it very clear that this is far beyond your typical strep throat,” says Gillespie. We’re talking high fever, a muffled voice, and pain way worse than the average cold.
So what's your immediate course of action if this happens to you?
If you develop difficulty swallowing (to the point where you’re spitting out saliva or drooling), start wheezing, or have to lean forward to breathe (which experts call “tripod posture"), you need to get to the emergency room, STAT. Once you get medical attention, doctors will be able to make sure you keep breathing, which may require using a ventilator, says Gillespie. The typical course of treatment is seven to 10 days of antibiotics administered by an IV. Before modern antibiotics, epiglottitis was almost always fatal.
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Sarah’s episode is an important reminder to take your health seriously and trust your instincts. If something feels off, get to the doctor.