If your asthma doesn't respond well to conventional treatment methods, the problem may not be with your respiratory system, but your breathing troubles could be caused by something similar called vocal cord dysfunction (VCD).

Both conditions appear with the same types of symptoms: shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. But while asthma is caused by inflammation, spasms, and increased mucus in your lungs, VCD is caused by spasms in the vocal cords that restrict airflow and lead to difficulty breathing.

Signs of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

It can be difficult to tell the difference between asthma and VCD, yet there are some subtle differences that can clue you in. For instance, both asthma and VCD cause wheezing but when the problem is related to your vocal chords, the wheezing occurs when you inhale, but with asthma, the sound is usually heard when you exhale. In addition, the wheezing sound with VCD usually has a higher pitch.

With asthma, you'll most likely experience the symptoms at night, while with VCD, it's more common to have an episode during the day. VCD can also cause some throat symptoms including a hoarse voice, which doesn't typically occur with asthma.

Getting a Professional Opinion

You might be tempted to try to diagnose yourself, but the only way to tell for sure whether you have asthma or VCD is to see a specialist. You can expect her to perform lung function tests including spirometry, which measures your airflow when you breathe, and laryngoscopy, which looks at how your vocal cords operate. In addition, she'll conduct a thorough medical exam and take a detailed history of your symptoms. All of this information can help her determine if your vocal chords are causing the symptoms or if they stem from a problem with your respiratory system. Just keep in mind that if you aren't actually experiencing any VCD symptoms at the time of your visit, this condition can be very easy to miss.

In some cases, asthma and VCD co-exist simultaneously, which can make it very difficult to pinpoint the problem.

Causes of Vocal Chord Dysfunction

Exactly why VCD occurs can depend on your specific situation, but some common triggers include:

  • Respiratory infections
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Allergies
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease GERD)
  • Exposure to smoke, scents, or fumes
  • Experiencing strong emotions, including crying and laughing

How to Manage VCD

Treating asthma often requires a combination of avoiding your triggers and using medication to control the symptoms, while VCD usually responds best to speech and behavioral therapy that teaches you how to control your vocal chord reaction and relax the muscles. Your doctor may refer you to a therapist who can develop an exercise plan geared to address your specific situation. You'll also need to identify what's triggering your VCD. If allergies or GERD may be sparking the symptoms, taking medications to control these problems can help relieve your discomfort. Managing stress can also be helpful in keeping VCD in check. If your doctor believes that your symptoms are caused by both asthma and VCD, you'll need to treat both problems at the same time in order to get the most relief.




"Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD)." American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. AAAAI, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Vocal Cord Dysfunction." Cleveland Clinic. Clevelandclinic.org, n.d. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Vocal Cord Dysfunction." National Jewish Health. NationalJewish.org, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Vocal Cord Dysfunction." The Asthma Center. The Asthma Center Education and Research Fund, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.