Suddenly you have difficulty inhaling, as though your airway is the diameter of a straw.
A vocal cord spasm can feel this way. Can acid reflux ever cause the vocal cords – which are muscles – to freeze up and narrow the portal through which air needs to enter to reach the lungs?
Particulates in the air can trigger a vocal cord spasm, also known as a laryngospasm.
Sometimes, anxiety is the culprit, and other times, there is no known cause for a particular patient’s experience.
What about acid reflux?
“Yes, acid is very damaging and irritating to the sensory organ: the larynx,” says Inna Husain, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist with Community Healthcare System of Indiana.
“When the larynx is irritated it goes into defensive mode, which can mean squeezing or tightening, i.e., spasm.”
How does stomach acid get as high as the vocal cords to begin with?
We’re inundated with heartburn commercials on TV and ads online and in print magazines for acid reducing pills.
This makes the masses of people think that acid reflux affects only the stomach and chest.
But acid can spurt up to vocal cord level. It can get into the mouth and even go as high as the nose.
This can all happen without causing heartburn.
Just a few drops of stomach acid, in contact with the vocal cords, could trigger a spasm of those muscles.
“When this happens, you should not try to talk, but instead do slow breathing in through the nose,” says Dr. Husain.
It’s important not to panic or jump to the conclusion that you’re having a heart attack.
A laryngospasm causes the feeling of a mechanical difficulty with inhaling, as though your airway has been constricted to the diameter of a straw.
This is not the same as “shortness of breath,” in which when a person feels short of breath, they may still be able to effortlessly take big deep breaths – such as how you’re able to do after running fast across a parking lot or up several flights of stairs.
“Acid reflux should be controlled by a low acid diet, ant-reflux precautions and use of antacids,” says Dr. Husain.
It can also be managed by sleeping with your head and torso elevated at least 15 degrees, to reduce the backwash of acid up through the esophagus and potentially into the throat while asleep.
If these conservative measures fail to reduce symptoms of acid reflux in your throat, you’ll need to seek a medical consultation to see if there’s an underlying cause such as a weak esophageal sphincter.
Dr. Husain is an otolaryngologist affiliated with Community Hospital, Munster, IN, Community Stroke and Rehabilitation Center, Crown Point, IN, and St. Catherine Hospital, East Chicago, IN. She received her medical degree from Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. Follow her on Instagram and TikTok.
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.