The vocal folds (also called “vocal cords”) live in the voice-box or “larynx” at the top of the windpipe. It is rather difficult to imagine what they look like, so I am showing you two different views in the diagrams: the way they look from the top when the doctor examines them, and also an imaginary “x-ray” view from the front.
As you can see from the front view, the vocal folds are literally folds (made up of muscle, skin and a few other substances) that jut out into the airway. When they are pulled wide apart, the folds are in the correct position for breathing in and out. When the vocal folds come together so their edges touch each other lightly, they are in the correct position for vocalizing.
Since the vocal folds are part of the airway-protection system, they can also be used as a valve that closes very tightly. By squeezing together, the vocal folds help to keep any food or fluid out of the airway when we swallow, or to expel invading objects when we cough. We also close the vocal fold valve tightly when we push, pull or lift something heavy, to hold air in the lungs and give us more arm power. The valving mechanism is a normal part of everyday functions (swallowing, coughing, pushing…) that involve several muscles common to the food tube (esophagus) and the voice-box.