It’s Not Asthma. It’s Vocal Cord Dysfunction.
Experts explain how VCD may be cause for respiratory distress in your child
By Ashley Parrott
Wheezing, coughing and the struggle to catch a single breath.
Sounds like asthma, right?
But there may be another cause for respiratory distress in your child: vocal cord dysfunction.
Asthma and vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) seemingly show the same symptoms, especially in adolescents. But what’s the difference between them?
Cook Children’s Emergency Department sees an average of 13,000 children each year exhibiting wheezing and difficulty breathing. The similarity of symptoms between asthma and vocal cord dysfunction may be difficult to differentiate to the eye so it’s important to note the small distinctions.
“Asthma and VCD are quite different even though some of the symptoms can overlap,” Corwin Warmink, M.D., medical director of Emergency Services at Cook Children’s said. “VCD causes difficulty breathing in compared to asthma, which makes it more difficult to breathe out. They also sound different when using a stethoscope to examine a patient.”
Unlike vocal cord dysfunction, asthma is an immune response when the body is exposed to various “triggers,” such as air pollutants, physical activity and airborne particles like pollen and pet dander. When triggered, the bronchial muscles in the airways constrict and the sudden obstruction causes the reaction of an asthma attack.
You may be experiencing an asthma attack if your symptoms include:
• Tightness in the chest
• Difficulty breathing
• Shortness of breath
• Coughing and wheezing
• Excess mucus
Vocal cord dysfunction is the abnormal closing-together of the vocal cords, resulting in the loss of airflow. Unlike asthma, VCD does not involve an immune response or a reaction from the airways. Vocal cord dysfunction makes it more difficult to breathe in than breathe out when symptoms occur.
Children who are active, vocal and use their vocal cords more than usual may have higher tendencies to experience VCD.
You may be experiencing vocal cord dysfunction if your symptoms include:
• Tightness in the throat
• Difficulty breathing
• Coughing and wheezing
• Hoarse voice
Asthma and VCD are regularly confused as the symptoms and triggers are similar. Many patients with VCD are originally treated for asthma.
“Patients are diagnosed by history, exam and lung function testing,” Dr. Schultz said. “Lung function testing can be completely normal in both conditions when no symptoms are present. Frequently history alone can differentiate the two. Occasionally lung function testing after exercise can be diagnostic or laryngoscopy after exercise”
Signs you may be experiencing VCD instead of asthma:
• It is more difficult to breathe in than it is to breathe out
• Asthma medications and inhalers do not ease symptoms
The diagnoses for VCD and asthma are different. Asthma requires pulmonary function tests, such as a peak flow and a spirometry test. While a diagnosis for vocal cord dysfunction typically entails results from other pulmonary function tests, such as a laryngoscopy or a spirometry test.
Many children who are diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction are referred to see a speech pathologist who can assess the degree of dysfunction, and begin a plan of action with different types of breathing and stretching exercises for the vocal cords.
“There are a number of ways we treat different diagnoses, but we will usually start with breathing exercises to make sure air flow is unhindered and the vocal cords can be well supported,” Melanie Van Noy, speech pathologist at Cook Children’s said. “Then we may do simple exercises to lengthen and stretch the vocal cords or exercises to reduce pressure. It depends on the diagnosis and the dysfunction.”
While VCD does not have specific medications to ease symptoms, speech therapy is tailored to allow children and their families learn triggers and how to cope when an attack does occur.
“For kiddos, a large part of our job is helping our young patients to become more aware of their vocal habits and educating not only them but their parents and siblings on how they can help change those habits, Van Noy said. “We also have some sophisticated software programs that help give our kiddos the feedback they need so they can not only hear the difference, but see the difference and the changes they are making as well.”
Speech therapy typically teaches and treats children for three to five sessions. If the child is still showing symptoms, a team of Cook Children’s doctors will begin to assess all the different aspects to their case.
“Our ENTs and pulmonologists work closely together to ensure that if our treatment plateaus or the patient is still showing symptoms despite treatment, we can collaborate on what to do next,” Van Noy said. “That may look like a discussion with the physician regarding compliance and progress of treatment, what other medical intervention strategies are available or maybe just another episode of care, which is what we refer to as our plans of care.”