Ever heard of vocal cord dysfunction?
Many people have not.
Vocal cord dysfunction, also known as VCD, is a respiratory condition that is characterized by adduction (coming together) of the vocal cords. The result is airflow limitations in the larynx that is often mistaken for asthma. The symptoms are very similar and can occur alone or along with asthma.
Asthma is a disease that causes the airways (also known as the bronchial tubes) to be extremely sensitive to irritants because of chronic inflammation. This results in breathing difficulties. The symptoms of asthma include:
Wheezing … a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe.
A tight feeling in the chest.
Shortness of breath causing a feeling like you can’t get enough air in or out of your lungs.
Constricting of the air passages within the lungs which leads to a greater resistance to airflow.
Quick and significant modifications in airway obstruction.
Nocturnal episodes that are frequent and low peak flow values in the morning
In contrast, an individual that has vocal cord dysfunction, especially those who don’t have asthma, typically exhibit the following symptoms:
Their attacks are abrupt with a fast recovery.
They can typically talk during an attack. However, their voice is usually hoarse.
Might improve when he or she pants or sings (yes, sings).
Experience more difficulty breathing in than breathing out.
The harsh, high-pitched sound of air coming into a tight airway may be heard at the throat.
May have a dry cough.
May not respond to standard asthma treatment.
Generally, there are no nocturnal episodes.
It’s easy to see how these two respiratory conditions might be misdiagnosed. Even though there are several other illnesses that can imitate the symptoms of asthma just like vocal cord dysfunction does, but these are usually much rarer.
Vocal cord dysfunction often results from reflux disease or postnasal drainage, and will usually improve with the treatment of these conditions. Another clinical clue that it might be vocal cord dysfunction instead of asthma may be that patients often respond poorly to beta-agonists or inhaled corticosteroids.
Treatment for VCD often involves high-dose inhaled and/or systemic corticosteroids, bronchodilators, and in severe cases hospitalizations, tracheostomies, and intubation.
To summarize, while the exact cause of vocal cord dysfunction is not clearly evident, there are some subtle differences that distinguish it from asthma. Primarily, you’ll want to note if your breathing attacks are nocturnal or not, if they respond to standard asthma treatment, and if your attacks come on suddenly followed by a quick recovery.
As always, never try to diagnose yourself. For the best treatment, keep a close eye on your symptoms and share your observations with your physician.