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Common vocal cord disorders include laryngitis, vocal polyps, vocal nodules, and vocal cord paralysis. Most disorders are caused by abuse or overuse of the voice, or by medical conditions such as asthma or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). They can also be caused by a respiratory infection or a virus. Treatment can include letting the voice rest, speech therapy, and in some cases surgery.


People who use their voices for work—like teachers, singers, and politicians—are at risk for vocal cord disorders. The main sign of a vocal cord disorder is sudden change in the voice. Symptoms can include:

  • Voice has become raspy or hoarse
  • Pitch of the voice has become deeper 
  • High notes are harder to hit when singing
  • Throat feels raw, achy, or strained
  • Talking has become more difficult or painful
  • Need to cough or clear the throat a lot

With vocal cord dysfunction, symptoms can include trouble breathing, especially breathing in. The throat can feel tight. Symptoms usually come and go.

When to See a Doctor

Ask a healthcare provider if:

  • Your voice does not return to normal within 2 to 4 weeks after a cold or illness. 
  • You lose your voice entirely for more than a few days.
  • A change in your voice lasts longer than a month. If you smoke, this can be an early sign of throat cancer. Catching it early greatly improves the chances of a cure.
  • You have trouble breathing.

Your healthcare provider may advise you to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor.


Most vocal cord disorders are cause by abuse or overuse of the voice. This can include:

  • Talking too loudly, yelling, or screaming
  • Singing or talking a lot, especially in people who do so professionally
  • Breathing air that’s polluted with dust, smoke, or chemicals
  • Coughing or clearing the throat a lot

They can also be caused by medical conditions, such as:

  • Infections, such as a cold or bronchitis
  • A virus, such as the flu
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which is when stomach acids back up into the throat
  • Cancer

Vocal cord paralysis is caused by nerve damage. This may result from:

  • An injury to the head, neck, or chest
  • A problem during surgery
  • A tumor or cancer in the lung or thyroid
  • Stroke

The cause of vocal cord dysfunction is not clear. Triggers that make it act up can include:

  • Exercise
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Air polluted with dust, smoke, or chemicals
  • Post-nasal drip
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which is when stomach acids back up into the throat
  • Certain medicines.

Diagnosis and Tests

A healthcare provider will do a complete physical exam and medical history. They can also look closely at your vocal cords with a small scope. Finding the cause of the vocal cord disorder will help decide on the best treatment.


You can help prevent vocal cord disorders if you:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Try not to speak much when your voice is hoarse or tired.
  • Try not to scream or yell. Use a microphone when you need to speak or sing loudly.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking causes your vocal cords to swell and makes your voice hoarse. It also puts you at risk for throat cancer.
  • Use good breath support. Try to fill your lungs with air before starting to talk.
  • Get voice therapy. A speech therapist can teach you how to use your voice in a healthy way.

Support and Resources

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders NIDCD Information Clearinghouse
1 Communication Avenue Bethesda, MD 20892-3456
Toll-free voice: (800) 241-1044
Toll-free TTY: (800) 241-1055

What is a Vocal Cord Disorder?

Some common vocal cord disorders include:

  • Laryngitis [lar-uhn-JYE-tis]. This is when inflamed vocal cords make the voice hoarse or raspy. It can be caused by overuse of the voice, infections, inhaled irritants, or a virus.
  • Vocal polyps or cysts. These are soft pouches like blisters on the vocal cords. They can make the voice sound hoarse or breathy.
  • Vocal nodules. Vocal nodules are like small calluses that form where the two vocal cords vibrate together. Nodules are caused by overuse of the voice. They are also called singers’ nodes, as they are often a problem for professional singers.
  • Vocal cord paralysis. One or both of the vocal cords cannot move. This is caused by nerve damage. This can cause problems with breathing or swallowing.
  • Vocal cord dysfunction [dis-FUNK-shun]. This is when one or both vocal cords moves in a way that blocks the airway. This can make breathing difficult. It’s sometimes confused with asthma because the symptoms come and go.