A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Trouble breathing: Vocal cord dysfunction or asthma?

Young woman out of breath after working out - Vocal chord dysfunction vs asthma

Like asthma, vocal cord dysfunction can cause shortness of breath during exercise. The two conditions have similar symptoms, but treatment is different.

Trouble breathing, wheezing and coughing are common asthma symptoms. They’re also symptoms of another breathing problem called vocal cord dysfunction, or abnormal closing of the vocal cords.

Both conditions can lead to decreased athletic performance and efficiency.

Despite the similarities, it’s important to get the right diagnosis to help you breathe and perform better, said Katie Luttropp, a Marshfield Clinic athletic trainer. Greater awareness will help patients recognize when their symptoms point to vocal cord dysfunction.

Symptoms similar to asthma

Anxiety, depression, exercise, upper respiratory infections, allergies, postnasal drip and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can trigger vocal cord dysfunction symptoms.

Vocal cord dysfunction involves symptoms similar to asthma, including:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Problems swallowing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarse voice or voice changes
  • Heartburn

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Symptoms typically last only a short time. Continued anxiety or physical activity without a break can cause them to last longer.

Rest and relaxation usually ease symptoms, but severe breathing problems require immediate medical help.

Prevent symptoms from starting

Although the symptoms are similar, inhalers used to manage asthma won’t help with vocal cord dysfunction. In fact, asthma medication may trigger more breathing problems, Luttropp said.

Managing vocal cord dysfunction depends on what’s causing the symptoms. Treatment may include:

  • Breathing exercises to help relax the vocal cords. A speech therapist can show you these techniques.
  • Relaxation techniques and reassurance if stress, anxiety or depression triggers symptoms.
  • Medication to treat postnasal drip or GERD.

Often misdiagnosed

Vocal cord dysfunction often is misdiagnosed as asthma because the symptoms are similar, but there is one major difference. People who have asthma have trouble breathing out, but people who have vocal cord dysfunction have trouble breathing in.

An otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) doctor can perform tests to diagnose vocal cord dysfunction. A pulmonary function test is a breathing test that can confirm the patient has trouble breathing in. A laryngoscopy, which involves placing a tube down the patient’s throat, shows how the vocal cords are working.

It’s possible to have asthma as well as vocal cord dysfunction, and both conditions must be treated.

Talk to your team athletic trainer or primary care provider if you think you have been misdiagnosed.

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