Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(2):160

See related article on vocal cord dysfuction

What is vocal cord dysfunction?

It is when your vocal cords partially close while you are breathing. This may cause shortness of breath, tightness in your throat, or a choking feeling. Vocal cord dysfunction can sometimes be mistaken for asthma.

What causes it?

Many things can cause this problem. It may happen when you breathe in air that has irritants in it. These may include smoke, dust, or ammonia. Other possible causes include acid reflux, stress, anxiety, and exercise. Some people are more sensitive to these things than others.

How do I know if I have it?

Your doctor may need to do two tests. One is a pulmonary function test to see how well your lungs are working. For this test, you blow forcefully into a machine that measures the speed and amount of air moving in and out of your lungs. This test is useful in telling the difference between vocal cord dysfunction and asthma.

The second test is flexible laryngoscopy (lar-in-GOS-coh-pee). Your doctor will pass a small, flexible tube through your nose to look at your vocal cords while you breathe. This test will help your doctor know if your vocal cords aren't working right.

How is it treated?

You should avoid anything that may be causing your symptoms (for example, smoke, dust, or other irritants). Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to reduce stomach acid, lower anxiety, or control allergies.

If you keep having symptoms, your doctor may suggest that you see a speech therapist. He or she can teach you how to breathe more easily and help you relax.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

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