What Are Laryngospasms? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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A laryngospasm occurs when your vocal cords contract suddenly. It can make breathing temporarily difficult. Causes of laryngospasms include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), vocal cord dysfunction, and asthma. Treatment for laryngospasms will depend on the underlying cause.

This article will discuss laryngospasms and their possible causes. It will also discuss symptoms, treatments, and when to contact a doctor.

What is a laryngospasm?

A doctor is checking a person's throat.
Studio Firma/Stocksy United

Laryngospasm describes a sudden, involuntary closure of the vocal cords. It can obstruct airflow to the lungs and make breathing difficult.

Many laryngospasm episodes resolve within seconds or minutes. In some cases, they can indicate an underlying condition such as asthma or GERD. Both are possible risk factors for laryngospasms.

Clinicians may also use the term “laryngeal spasm” to describe the condition.

What causes laryngospasms?

Possible causes and risk factors for laryngospasms include:

  • asthma
  • vocal cord dysfunction
  • GERD
  • reflex actions
  • anesthesia
  • allergies
  • neurological conditions
  • stress and anxiety
  • nerve injuries

Asthma

Asthma is the inflammation and narrowing of the small air passages in the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness, and a wheezing sound when you breathe.

Learn more about asthma.

Vocal cord dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction refers to the atypical closure of your vocal cords when you breathe in or out.

Ordinarily, your vocal cords separate when you breathe and come together when you talk. With vocal cord dysfunction, they do not separate the way they should.

Possible causes of vocal cord dysfunction include infection, inhaled irritants, and GERD. Symptoms can be similar to those of asthma.

Learn more about vocal cord dysfunction.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

GERD occurs when stomach acid flows backward from your stomach into your esophagus. Risk factors for GERD include:

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, around 20% of people in the United States experience GERD.

Laryngopharyngeal reflux, a condition related to GERD, may also contribute to laryngospasms. With this condition, acidic content from your stomach travels up into your voicebox and throat. This can affect the sensory triggers in your vocal cords, which may result in laryngospasms.

Learn more about GERD.

Reflex actions

Laryngospasms may occur after you accidentally inhale food or swallow something. When this happens, your body tries to prevent suffocation or drowning by closing your airway.

Anesthesia

Anesthesia is used to numb your body during a surgical operation. You may experience a laryngospasm after receiving an anesthetic.

Not every anesthetic can cause laryngospasms. They are less likely with local, regional, and spinal anesthetics.

Learn about anesthesia.

Allergies

Inhaling irritants or allergens can trigger laryngospasms.

Common allergens include:

  • pollen
  • dust
  • animal fur

Neurological conditions

You may experience laryngospasms if you have a neurological disorder. Neurological conditions occur as a result of damage to the brain, peripheral nerves, or spinal column.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), there are over 600 types of neurological conditions.

Examples of neurological conditions include:

With some neurological conditions, you may also experience a sensation similar to choking, even though nothing is blocking your airway.

Stress and anxiety

Laryngospasms may occur as a result of certain psychological conditions such as stress and anxiety.

Nerve injuries

Nerve injuries interfere with your brain’s ability to communicate with your body. They can occur when a nerve is compressed or stretched.

A 2018 report highlighted a case of recurring laryngospasms following cervical spine trauma. However, the case was described as “unusual.” This suggests that this type of trauma is not a common cause of laryngospasms.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns related to the possible causes of laryngospasms.

What are the symptoms of laryngospasms?

Laryngospasms are the temporary loss of control over your vocal cords. They can last anywhere from several seconds to several minutes. They may cause breathing difficulties or other symptoms.

Other symptoms of laryngospasms include:

  • a hoarse, wheezing sound when trying to breathe
  • tightness in the throat
  • heartburn in cases of acid reflux or GERD

Laryngospasms are not usually a cause for concern. However, if your symptoms persist, it is important to contact your doctor. They can perform tests to help identify the underlying cause.

Learn more about respiratory symptoms.

What are the treatments for laryngospasms?

Your doctor may recommend medications or other treatments to address the underlying cause of laryngospasms. These can include:

  • inhalers and oral medication for asthma
  • antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors for GERD
  • speech therapy and deep breathing techniques for vocal cord dysfunction
  • therapy and antidepressants such as SSRIs for psychological conditions

Talk with your doctor about which treatment options may be right for you.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor if symptoms of laryngospasms persist or if you suspect another condition such as asthma or acid reflux. They can perform tests to make an accurate diagnosis and recommend the best treatments for you.

If you have difficulty breathing for more than a few minutes, seek immediate medical help.

How do doctors diagnose laryngospasms?

To diagnose laryngospasms, your doctor may assess your symptoms and ask for a full medical history. They may also examine your vocal cords with a small mirror or flexible fiberoptic laryngoscope.

If your doctor notices any signs of an underlying condition, they may want to perform tests. These can include:

  • Allergy tests: These check for an allergic reaction to different substances. There are many types of allergy tests, including skin injection tests and patch tests.
  • Gastrointestinal tests: These examine your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, including your esophagus, stomach, intestine, and rectum. Your doctor may order gastrointestinal testing if they suspect GERD. Types of GI tests include pH probe, transnasal esophagoscopy, and manometry.
  • CT scan of the sinuses: This uses X-ray equipment to examine your sinuses, which are the hollow, air-filled spaces in your head. You should not feel any pain during a CT scan.

What are the complications of laryngospasms?

Left untreated, laryngospasms can sometimes lead to complications.

Untreated laryngospasms due to anesthesia may cause:

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about complications from laryngospasms.

Can I prevent laryngospasms?

Laryngospasms can be spontaneous and may not be preventable. However, frequent laryngospasms may be due to an underlying condition. Treating a condition that can lead to laryngospasms may help to prevent them.

Contact your doctor if you experience laryngospasms. They can perform tests to help identify any underlying cause.

Summary

Laryngospasms occur when your vocal cords contract suddenly. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, tightness of the throat, and a hoarse, wheezing sound.

Laryngospasms can occur as a result of various medical conditions, including GERD, nerve injury, and asthma.

Contact your doctor promptly if you have concerns about laryngospasms. They can order tests to provide you with an accurate diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.