Laryngospasm in Scuba Diving

Laryngospasm is an involuntary and forceful constriction of the vocal cords, which can obstruct air flow and cause difficulty in breathing. It is a natural response of the body to prevent water from entering the lungs in situations of drowning or near-drowning. Though relatively rare, laryngospasm can occur during scuba diving, and understanding its causes, symptoms, and management is crucial for divers to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience underwater.

Causes of Laryngospasm

Laryngospasm can be triggered by various factors, some of which are specific to the scuba diving environment. Common causes include:

  1. Irritation of the airway: Inhalation of water, regurgitated stomach contents, or mucus can irritate the lining of the airway, leading to laryngospasm.
  2. Cold water shock: Sudden exposure to cold water, particularly on the face, can cause involuntary gasping and subsequent laryngospasm.
  3. Panic and stress: Anxiety and panic can lead to hyperventilation, which may trigger laryngospasm.
  4. Underlying medical conditions: Asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or other respiratory issues can predispose a person to laryngospasm.

Symptoms of Laryngospasm

The primary symptom of laryngospasm is a sudden and severe difficulty in breathing, often accompanied by a high-pitched wheezing sound. Other symptoms may include:

  1. Stridor: A harsh, vibrating noise created by turbulent airflow through a partially obstructed airway.
  2. Coughing or choking: The body’s reflexive attempts to clear the airway.
  3. Cyanosis: A bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes due to inadequate oxygen supply.
  4. Anxiety and panic: The sudden onset of breathing difficulty can induce a sense of panic, further complicating the situation.

Prevention of Laryngospasm

Divers can take several measures to reduce the risk of laryngospasm during scuba diving:

  1. Proper training and certification: Ensuring that divers have received thorough training and possess the necessary skills to remain calm and manage stress underwater.
  2. Gradual acclimatization: Slowly acclimating to the water temperature, particularly when diving in cold water, can help prevent cold water shock.
  3. Regular equipment maintenance: Ensuring that the diving gear, particularly the regulator, is in good working condition to minimize the chances of water inhalation.
  4. Addressing underlying medical conditions: Consult with a healthcare professional and address any pre-existing conditions that could increase the risk of laryngospasm.
  5. Breathing techniques: Practicing controlled, slow, and deep breathing can help to prevent hyperventilation and subsequent laryngospasm.

Management of Laryngospasm

In the event of a laryngospasm during a dive, it is important to stay calm and follow these steps:

  1. Signal for assistance: Alert your dive buddy or instructor about the situation using established underwater communication signals.
  2. Ascend to the surface: If the laryngospasm persists, ascend to the surface slowly and cautiously, maintaining a safe ascent rate to prevent decompression sickness.
  3. Remove the regulator: Once at the surface, remove the regulator from your mouth and attempt to breathe normally.
  4. Cough or clear the airway: Attempt to clear the airway by coughing or forcefully exhaling.
  5. Seek medical attention: If the laryngospasm does not resolve, or if any symptoms persist after the dive, seek immediate medical attention.


Laryngospasm, while relatively rare, can be a serious and potentially life-threatening event during scuba diving. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and management techniques, divers can take preventive measures and be better prepared to handle such situations. Proper training, equipment maintenance, and addressing underlying medical conditions are key to minimizing the risk of laryngospasm. In the event of a laryngospasm, staying calm and following the appropriate steps can ensure the safety of the diver and those around them. It is essential for divers to remain vigilant and prioritize their well-being to fully enjoy the underwater world.