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If it’s Not Asthma, Then What is it?: Cook Children's Speech Therapists Discuss Breathing Difficulty with Stress and/or Exercise

How to tell if your child has exercise-induced laryngeal obstruction or inducible laryngeal obstruction

By Jenny Arey, Physical Therapist, PT, DPT, OCS, CMPT and Alex Surdo, Speech-Language Pathologist, M.Ed., CCC-SLP

Your child is a real go-getter; maybe they’re a straight-A student or a star athlete. Lately, though, they have trouble breathing during very inopportune times, like before a test or a big track meet. You have seen their primary care doctor and you have seen a pulmonologist. Maybe they are put on an inhaler, but it doesn’t seem to be working like you hoped. So what’s going on? soccersportsplay.jpg

Have you heard of vocal cord dysfunction? Well, there is a new name for it: exercise-induced laryngeal obstruction (EILO) and inducible laryngeal obstruction (ILO). That’s a mouthful.

Whenever there’s a “trigger” (i.e. exercise, stress, certain odors), the vocal cords narrow and it feels like you can’t get a good breath in no matter what you try to do. It isn’t life-threatening because your vocal cords are actually still open, but they aren’t open enough to fill your lungs. It’s scary. Your child is panicking and now you are, too.

What are the symptoms of EILO/ILO?

  • Chest/throat tightness
  • Difficulty inhaling
  • Noisy breathing
  • Shortness of breath

That sounds an awful lot like asthma, doesn’t it? You’re right; EILO/ILO and asthma sound very similar, but there are a few differences. Let’s compare the two:


  • Breathing sounds high pitched, grating
  • Struggle with inhalation
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Rapid onset, rapid recovery


  • Breathing sounds like wheezing
  • Struggle with exhalation
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Gradual onset, gradual recovery

You have ruled out asthma with your physicians and ruled in EILO/ILO. 

What do we know about EILO/ILO?

Onset can occur at any age, but most commonly, EILO and ILO are diagnosed in 12 to 18-year-olds. friendship and people concept - happy teenage friends or high school students having fun and making

It is most prevalent in our young athlete population and it can lead to anxiety about playing sports because of the fear of not being able to breathe. The same thing can happen around stressful situations like an upcoming AP history test or a choir performance.

Speech Therapy

What can be done to help these kids get back into their sports, extracurriculars, and high-demand classes? Speech therapy and/or physical therapy is the answer! And it’s all about breath.

With speech therapy, we look at how the child is breathing and teach them a variety of strategies to make their breathing more efficient.

We work on rescue breathing techniques that will blow the airway open during an active EILO/ILO episode as well as preventative breathing strategies that will keep the airway open during exercise or stressful activities. We also focus on diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, so the child can optimize the amount of air they are getting into their lungs at rest and during physical activity. Speech Therapy 1

With physical therapy, we can look at the athlete’s movement patterns, posture, endurance, and strength that may be impacting their breathing. Oftentimes, stiffness or weakness through the trunk and core changes a person’s breathing pattern, causing them to have difficulty controlling their breath (especially during high-intensity activities).

This can lead to increased fatigue, tension around the neck and/or shoulders, and EILO symptoms. Another area of focus is cardiovascular endurance training to avoid the feeling of “hitting a wall” during exercise.

Through guided exercises, improvements can be achieved by reducing compensations or our body’s way of cheating through movements, training the proper muscle groups, and supporting proper muscle use and form during athletic movements.

What is the common goal? To give the child the skills they need to get back to the activities they love. If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to their primary physician to discuss a potential referral to an ENT (otolaryngologist) or pulmonologist for further diagnostic testing.

Speech Therapy at Cook Children's speech therapy

Children learn to babble and talk at different times. Before you know it they can read their favorite book or tell you what they want for their birthday. But, when they can't tell you what they want to eat for breakfast or the daycare teacher can't understand what they say, parents need somewhere to turn.

Choosing our team

At Cook Children's Rehabilitation Services, our speech-language pathologists are highly skilled and experienced in children's communication development. They work with parents and families to help their children communicate their wants and needs. Many of our therapists have additional training and experience in specialty areas. We also have bilingual therapists on staff that treat a variety of communication and feeding difficulties. Go here to learn more about Speech Therapy at Cook Children's.