Laryngospasm is a rare but frightening experience. When it happens, the vocal cords suddenly seize up or close when taking in a breath, blocking the flow of air into the lungs. People with this condition may be awakened from a sound sleep and find themselves momentarily unable to speak or breathe. Though it can be scary while it's happening, laryngospasm typically goes away within a couple of minutes.
What Causes Laryngospasm?
Laryngospasm may be associated with different triggers, such as asthma, allergies, exercise, irritants (smoke, dust, fumes), stress, anxiety or commonly gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is a condition that occurs when the ring-like muscle that normally closes to keep the stomach's contents from backing up doesn't work right. With reflux, harsh acids from the stomach rise up into the esophagus and cause irritation.
Regular exposure to stomach acids can damage and inflame the delicate lining of the esophagus. This damage can lead to momentary spasms of the vocal cords, which close the airway and prevent air and oxygen from getting into the lungs.
When stomach acids reach the larynx, the condition is called laryngopharyngeal reflux or LPR. The tissues of the larynx are even more delicate and prone to injury than the esophagus. Coughs from a cold can push more acid into the larynx, so a recent or current upper respiratory infection may increase the likelihood of developing laryngospasm.
Laryngospasm may also be a complication of surgery. Anesthesia used during the surgery can irritate the vocal cords, especially in children. Laryngospasm caused by anesthesia can be life-threatening.