Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on March 24, 2017Written by Kathryn Watson on March 24, 2017

What is a laryngospasm?

Laryngospasm refers to a sudden spasm of the vocal cords. Laryngospasms are often a symptom of an underlying condition. Sometimes they can happen as a result of anxiety or stress. They can also happen as a symptom of asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or vocal cord dysfunction. Sometimes they happen for reasons that cannot be determined.

Laryngospasms usually last for less than a minute. During that time, you cannot speak or breathe. Laryngospasms are not usually an indicator of a serious problem, and generally they aren’t fatal. You may experience a laryngospasm once and never have one again. If you have laryngospasms that recur, you should find out what is causing them.

Causes of laryngospasm

If you’re having recurring laryngospasms, they’re probably a symptom of something else.

Gastrointestinal reaction

Laryngospasms are often caused by a gastrointestinal reaction. They can be an indicator of GERD, which is a chronic condition. GERD is characterized by stomach acid or undigested food coming back up your esophagus. If this acid or food matter touches your larynx, where your vocal cords are, it may trigger them to spasm and constrict.

Vocal cord dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction is when your vocal cords behave abnormally when you inhale or exhale. Vocal cord dysfunction is similar to asthma, and both can trigger laryngospasms. Asthma is an immune system reaction that’s triggered by an air pollutant or vigorous breathing. Though vocal cord dysfunction and asthma require different kinds of treatment, they have many of the same symptoms.

Stress or emotional anxiety

A third common cause of laryngospasm is stress or emotional anxiety. A laryngospasm can be your body displaying a physical reaction to an intense feeling that you’re experiencing. If stress or anxiety cause laryngospasms, you may need help from a mental health professional in addition to your regular doctor.

Laryngospasms happen to some people while they’re asleep, and they can also happen during surgical procedures that involve general anesthesia.

Sleep-related laryngospasm

In 1997, it was found that people can experience laryngospasm in their sleep. This is unrelated to laryngospasms that happen during anesthesia. A sleep-related laryngospasm will cause a person to wake up out of a deep sleep. This can be a frightening experience as you awake feeling disoriented and having trouble breathing. Just like laryngospasms that happen while awake, a sleep-related laryngospasm will only last several seconds. Having repeated laryngospasms while sleeping is most likely related to acid reflux or vocal cord dysfunction. It’s not life-threatening, but you should speak with your doctor if you experience this.

Symptoms of laryngospasm

During a laryngospasm, your vocal cords stop in a closed position. You’re unable to control the contraction that’s happening at the opening to the trachea (windpipe). You may feel like your windpipe is constricted slightly (a minor laryngospasm) or like you cannot breathe at all. The laryngospasm will not normally last too long, though you may experience a few happening in a brief time span. If you’re able to breathe during a laryngospasm, you may hear a hoarse whistling sound, called stridor, as air moves through the smaller opening.

How laryngospasm is treated

Laryngospasms tend to take the person having them by surprise. This feeling of surprise can actually make the symptoms become worse, or at least seem worse than they are. If you have recurrent laryngospasms caused by asthma, stress, or GERD, you can learn breathing exercises to keep calm during them. Staying calm can reduce the duration of the spasm in some cases.

If you’re experiencing a tense feeling in your vocal cords and a blocked airway, try not to panic. Don’t gasp or gulp for air. Drink small sips of water to try to wash away anything that might have irritated your vocal cords. If GERD is what triggers your laryngospasms, treatment measures that reduce acid reflux may help keep them from happening.

If you witness someone having what appears to be a laryngospasm, make sure that they’re not choking. Urge them to stay calm, and see if they can nod their head in response to questions. If there is no object blocking the airway, and you know that the person is not having an asthma attack, continue to speak to them in soothing tones until the laryngospasm has passed. If within 60 seconds the condition worsens, or if the person exhibits other symptoms (such as their skin going pale), don’t assume they are having a laryngospasm. Call 911.

Preventing laryngospasm

Laryngospasms are hard to prevent or predict unless you know what is causing them. If your laryngospasms are related to your digestion or acid reflux, treating the digestive problem will help prevent future laryngospasms.

The outlook for a person that has had one or several laryngospasms is good. Though uncomfortable and at times frightening, this condition is generally not fatal and does not indicate a medical emergency.

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