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Laryngospasm: What causes it?

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 9, 2021.

Laryngospasm (luh-RING-go-spaz-um) is a transient and reversible spasm of the vocal cords that temporarily makes it difficult to speak or breathe. The vocal cords are two fibrous bands inside the voice box (larynx) at the top of the windpipe (trachea). The onset of a vocal cord spasm is sudden, and 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 unknown, 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 medications help, please consult your doctor before taking them long term. If the cause is unclear, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngologist) to look at your vocal cords with a mirror or small fiberscope to be sure there is no other abnormality.

If the diagnosis is laryngospasm or other vocal cord dysfunction, your doctor may refer you 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.

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