Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction and Vocal Cord Dysfunction: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

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Abstract

Patients are referred often because of self-reported symptoms of dyspnea and wheeze during exercise. The two common causes of exercise-induced dyspnea are exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) and vocal cord dysfunction (VCD). It can be extraordinarily difficult to differentiate between the two, especially because they may coexist in the same patient. EIB is caused by bronchial smooth muscle constriction in the lower airways due to the inhalation of dry air or allergens during exercise; it is associated with the release of bronchoconstricting mediators from airway cells. EIB can occur in patients with or without persistent asthma. In contrast, VCD is associated with the paradoxical adduction of the vocal cords, especially during inhalation, which may produce inspiratory stridor. VCD can be solitary or comorbid with asthma and/or EIB. EIB classically is most severe after the cessation of exercise, while VCD typically occurs during exercise and resolves quickly upon exercise cessation. However, history is not adequate to differentiate between EIB and VCD, and appropriate challenge tests and flexible laryngoscopy during exercise are often necessary for diagnosis. This article examines our current understanding of these entities and discusses the mechanism, prevalence, diagnosis, and treatment.

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