woman having trouble breathing

It’s frightening as heck to have a vocal cord spasm, but what are the chances that the muscles won’t relax in time and you then die of asphyxiation?

“Attacks from vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) can be extremely dramatic and scary, frequently resulting in 911 calls, emergency room visits and potentially passing out,” explains Gene Liu, MD, MMM, President, Chair, Department of Surgery; Chief, Division of Otolaryngology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Group.

“These episodes are most commonly confused with allergic reactions, asthma attacks or choking on foreign bodies.”

What a Vocal Cord Spasm Feels Like

It may be preceded by a cough, caused by inhaling an airborne irritant or acid reflux making contact with the vocal cords.

If the cause is strong fumes, exercise or acute stress, there may not be coughing. It can even be triggered by a pill being swallowed that almost goes down the “wrong pipe.”

Perhaps you’ve read that the key symptom is “shortness of breath.” However, the feeling is nothing like the “shortness of breath” you’d feel after running up several flights of stairs or jumping rope as fast as you can for 30 seconds.

With the typical shortness of breath from heavy exertion, you can inhale perfectly fine. It’s just that you have to do it more rapidly and deeply.

When acute vocal cord dysfunction occurs, you’ll be inhaling as deeply as you can, yet feeling that not enough air is getting in, as though the airway has been constricted.

You won’t be able to take a fast deep breath, as you can with the normal shortness of breath that occurs during or after physical exertion.

Rather, try as you might, your inhalation will be slow, labored and feel shallow, and by the time you get to the top of it, you’ll still feel as though you’re breathing inside a room with very low oxygen or through a straw with your nose plugged.

While you struggle to inhale enough air, there’ll be a wheezing sound – which may be high or have a whistle-like quality, or be lower in pitch.

But you’ll hear it; it sounds nothing like the normal panting after a hard run across a parking lot in the rain.

You may recoup in about 10, 20 or 30 seconds, with each labored round of inhalation getting easier until finally everything feels normal – though you’ll be stunned over what just happened.

And scared out of your mind with fear that if it happens again, you might die.

Dying from a Vocal Cord Spasm?

Dr. Liu explains, “Generally, the ‘worst case scenario’ is thought to be that someone will pass out, the vocal cords relax and the attack ends. There are no cases reported in the medical literature of someone dying from VCD.”

This refers to otherwise healthy people experiencing a vocal cord spasm. There are athletes who must deal with this, but none have been documented to have died as a result.

In addition, people whose acid reflux causes vocal cord dysfunction do not have to worry about dying from an attack.

However, it’s possible for a laryngoscopy, intubation or extubation (inserting or taking out a breathing tube, respectively) to trigger a vocal cord spasm, preventing inflow of air.

In a patient who is heavily sedated, this situation is life threatening and requires immediate intervention to relax the cords.

A vocal cord spasm is also called a laryngospasm. You do not have to worry about such an event being fatal.

Dr. Liu’s clinical areas of focus cover a broad range including surgery of the head and neck, sinuses and thyroid, and disorders of the ears, salivary glands and vocal cords.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.