What causes laryngospasm?
Answer From Sahil Khanna, M.B.B.S., M.S.
Laryngospasm (luh-RING-go-spaz-um) is a spasm of the vocal cords that makes it difficult to speak or breathe for a short time. The vocal cords are two fibrous bands inside the voice box, also called the larynx. The larynx sits at the top of the windpipe, also called the trachea. The onset of a vocal cord spasm is sudden. Just as suddenly, it goes away, usually after a few minutes. The breathing difficulty can be alarming, but it's not life-threatening.
The cause of vocal cord spasms is often not known, and it is usually in response to a trigger such as anxiety or acid reflux. Acid reflux may cause a few drops of stomach acid backwash to touch the vocal cords, setting off the spasm. Laryngospasm can sometimes occur after an endotracheal tube is removed from the throat.
These are usually rare events and recurrence is uncommon. But if it happens, try to relax. Taking an antacid or acid inhibitor for a few weeks may help diagnose the problem by the process of elimination. If these medicines help, please talk with your healthcare team before taking them long term. If the cause is not clear, your care team may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist, called an otolaryngologist. The specialist can look at your vocal cords with a mirror or small scope to be sure there is no other issue.
If the diagnosis is laryngospasm or other vocal cord dysfunction, you may be referred to a speech-language pathologist to help you learn breathing exercises. Relaxation and breathing techniques may relieve symptoms and lessen the frequency or severity of laryngospasms in the future.
Sahil Khanna, M.B.B.S., M.S.
Dec. 06, 2023
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See more Expert Answers
- Keech BM, et al. Pulmonary complications. In: Anesthesia Secrets. Elsevier; 2021. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Nov. 5, 2021.
- Rutt AL, et al. Management of refractory laryngospasm. Journal of Voice. 2021; doi:10.1016/j.jvoice.2020.01.004.
- Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Upper airway disorders. In: Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Elsevier; 2022. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Nov. 5, 2021.
- Vocal cord dysfunction. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-treatments/related-conditions/vocal-cord-dysfunction. Accessed Oct. 4, 2023.
- Khanna S (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. Nov. 7, 2021.