Laryngospasm is a frightening condition that happens when your vocal cords suddenly seize up, making breathing more difficult. This rare phenomenon is often a symptom of an underlying condition. If you’ve had recurring laryngospasms, you should see your healthcare provider to find out what’s causing them.
Laryngospasm (luh-RING-o-spaz-um) is a condition in which your vocal cords suddenly spasm (involuntarily contract or seize). As a result, your airway becomes temporarily blocked, making it difficult to breathe or speak. Laryngospasms are rare and typically last for fewer than 60 seconds. Even though laryngospasms are scary when they happen, they usually don’t cause serious problems.
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While laryngospasms affect your vocal cords (two bands of tissue housed inside of your larynx), bronchospasms affect your bronchi (the airways that connect your windpipe to your lungs). Both conditions result in sudden, frightening spasms — and both conditions can temporarily affect your ability to breathe and speak.
Laryngospasms are rare. Some people may experience recurring (returning) laryngospasms. If this happens to you, talk to your healthcare provider. They can help figure out what’s causing them.
People with laryngospasm are unable to speak or breathe. Many describe a choking sensation. This is because your vocal cords are contracted and closed tight during a laryngospasm. As your vocal cords slowly relax and open, you may hear a high-pitched sound (stridor). You might experience multiple laryngospasms in a brief time — but in most cases, each episode ends after about a minute. Even though laryngospasm isn’t usually serious or life-threatening, the experience can be terrifying.
Sometimes, laryngospasm happens for seemingly no reason. But it can be a symptom of other conditions, including:
Left untreated, laryngospasm caused by anesthesia can be fatal. To reverse laryngospasm after surgery with anesthesia, your medical team can perform treatments to relax your vocal cords and ease your symptoms.
Laryngospasms that are caused by other conditions — like asthma, stress or hypersensitivity— aren’t usually dangerous or life-threatening. But if you have laryngospasms often, you should schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.
Laryngospasm can happen suddenly and without warning, lasting up to one minute. Symptoms can be mild or severe. For example, you might be able to exhale and cough, but have difficulty breathing in. If you think you’ve experienced laryngospasm, talk to your healthcare provider.
Most of the time, your healthcare provider can diagnose laryngospasm by reviewing your symptoms and medical history. To confirm the diagnosis, your healthcare provider may look at your vocal cords with a laryngeal endoscope.
Laryngospasm treatment depends on the underlying cause. For example, if laryngospasms are linked to GERD, then treating chronic acid reflux can also reduce your risk for laryngospasm. If laryngospasms are due to anxiety, then anti-anxiety meds can help ease your spasms.
Unfortunately, laryngospasms usually happen quickly. So, treatment often involves finding ways to stay calm during the episode. If you or someone you’re with is having a laryngospasm, you should:
In addition to the techniques outlined above, there are breathing exercises that can help you through a laryngospasm. Here are a couple of techniques to try during an attack:
Because laryngospasm happens suddenly without warning, there’s really no way to prevent it. However, if you’ve experienced laryngospasms in the past, your healthcare provider can determine what’s causing them and find ways to reduce your risk.
Laryngospasms can be frightening, whether you’ve experienced them before or not. Even though you may feel like you can’t breathe, try to remember that the episode will pass. If you have any of the conditions listed above, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to reduce your risk for laryngospasms.
In most cases, a laryngospasm lasts for up to one minute, but it may feel much longer.
If you’ve experienced a laryngospasm, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can perform an examination and find out if there are ways to prevent laryngospasm from happening in the future.
If breathing exercises and pushing on your laryngospasm notch don’t relieve your symptoms, call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Laryngospasm usually isn’t life-threatening, but it can be a terrifying experience. Learning breathing techniques can help you remain calm during an episode. If you have recurring laryngospasms, schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider who specializes in laryngology (a subspecialty within the ear, nose and throat [ENT] department). They can determine the cause of your laryngospasms and recommend an appropriate treatment plan.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/11/2022.
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