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.


What is laryngospasm?

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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Laryngospasm vs. bronchospasm: What’s the difference?

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.

How common is laryngospasm?

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.


Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of laryngospasm?

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.

What triggers laryngospasm?

Sometimes, laryngospasm happens for seemingly no reason. But it can be a symptom of other conditions, including:

  • Asthma. People with asthma may experience laryngospasm after coming in contact with air pollution or breathing vigorously after exercise.
  • GERD (chronic acid reflux). Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) causes stomach acid or undigested food to come back up into your esophagus (throat). Sometimes, this acid or debris also comes in contact with your larynx and triggers a laryngospasm.
  • Stress or anxiety disorders. Emotional responses like stress and anxiety can trigger laryngospasm. It’s your body’s physical response to an intense emotion that you’re feeling.
  • Sleep-related laryngospasm. Some people experience laryngospasm in their sleep and wake up gasping for air. Often, this is related to vocal cord dysfunction or acid reflux.
  • Anesthesia. In some cases, laryngospasm occurs during general anesthesia. This happens when the anesthesia or extubation (removal of the nose or throat tube) irritates your vocal cords. This type of laryngospasm is more common in certain individuals, including children, people undergoing surgery on their larynx or pharynx and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Laryngeal hypersensitivity (irritable larynx syndrome). If the mucosa of your upper airway is too sensitive, anything that stimulates it may cause a laryngospasm, such as cold air, talking loud, coughing or eating certain foods.

Can laryngospasm be fatal?

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.


Diagnosis and Tests

How do you know if you’re having a laryngospasm?

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.

What tests will be done to diagnose laryngospasm?

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.

Management and Treatment

How is laryngospasm treated?

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:

  • Try not to panic or gasp for air. Remaining calm can help you relax more through the laryngospasm.
  • Take small sips of water. This will help wash away any irritants that may have come in contact with your vocal cords.
  • Apply pressure behind your earlobes. The soft spot behind your earlobes and just above your jaw is known as the laryngospasm notch. When you apply forceful pressure down and inward on this pressure point, it can help your vocal cords relax.

How do you breathe during laryngospasm?

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:

  • Place a straw in your mouth and seal your lips around it. Breathe in and out through the straw without pausing between the inhale and the exhale. Avoid breathing in through your nose. The goal is to slow your breathing and allow your vocal cords to relax.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose. Exhale through pursed lips. Hold your breath for five seconds, then repeat until the laryngospasm stops.


Can I prevent laryngospasm?

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.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have a laryngospasm?

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.

How long does a laryngospasm last?

In most cases, a laryngospasm lasts for up to one minute, but it may feel much longer.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

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.

When should I go to ER?

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.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/11/2022.

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