How to Take Care of Your Awesome Voice
It’s wintertime, which creates a couple of issues for singers: dryness and cold/flu season.
The voice needs moisture to work well. Here are a few tips to help it survive until April showers start falling:
Drink more water. The color of your pee will tell you if you’ve had enough. Pale is best. Clear means you’ve probably had too much. Drink water at least 20 minutes before you sing so the water can go through your digestive system and then to your vocal folds.
Drink an extra glass of water for every caffeinated beverage you drink. Caffeine is dehydrating. You might find that certain beverages wreak more havoc on your vocal folds than others. For me, it’s coffee and Diet Coke. When I drink them, I find myself having to clear my throat and cough more often, and my voice feels scratchier. It’s best to cut out whatever’s causing the problem, but if you’re really addicted (I feel you), offset the effects with more water.
Humidify dry spaces. 45% humidity is a good goal. A hygrometer will tell you what the humidity level is in your space. Put a humidifier in spaces that are too dry. This helps your nose and throat and vocal folds stay healthier, work better, and ward off disease.
No liquids of any kind actually touch your vocal folds. Your vocal folds are part of your breathing system, not your eating/drinking system. If anything touches them, you go into a coughing fit…that sensation when something goes down the “wrong pipe.” Since liquids don’t touch the vocal folds, there is no magic cold/flu drink formula that will “wash gunk off” of the vocal folds themselves…no hot tea, lemon, honey, or any other substance besides air will touch the vocal folds. Those things might help your throat (above the vocal folds) feel better, but don’t expect them to get the gunk off of your vocal folds. If you feel gunk on the vocal folds, cough or clear your throat very gently. Both can lead to vocal fold injuries when done too much or too hard.
This is also a season when many people are dealing with colds and the flu. Singers should be aware of the effects of commonly-taken cold and flu drugs. They are often combined in single pills, so read the ingredients to see what you’re taking.
Decongestants can be dehydrating. While that might be great for your runny nose, it’s not great for your vocal folds. You probably need extra water to combat their effects. I personally can’t take them because they make my voice feel funky no matter how hydrated I am. I regularly use a sinus rinse kit instead to keep my sinuses and nasal passages clearer. You can talk to your ENT about using one. If sinus congestion is a regular issue for you, consider talking to your doctor about food sensitivities you might have that could be causing the congestion. Dairy causes many people to create excess mucous. I stopped eating dairy a couple years ago and haven’t had a sinus infection since.
NSAIDs (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc.) can lead to vocal fold hemorrhage if we sing loud, high, or for a long time while we’re on them. Hopefully, if you’re taking them, it’s temporarily for flu-related symptoms, and you’re in bed instead of being on stage. But if you’re gigging while you’re sick and on these meds, you should modify your singing so that it’s not too extreme…not too loud, high, or long…if you can help it. If you’re taking NSAIDs on a regular basis for chronic pain, talk to your doctor about other ways you can reduce pain and inflammation in your body.
Guaifenesin (Mucinex) is an expectorant. It helps thin mucous so your body can get rid of bad stuff in your respiratory system more easily. It can be beneficial for vocal folds because it helps keep them well-hydrated if you also drink plenty of water.
Cough suppressants can be helpful for keeping coughing to a minimum to protect the vocal folds.
Finally, throughout this season, be sure to get as much sleep as you can. Your body and voice can’t heal without it, no matter how many drugs, herbal supplements, or superfoods you’re ingesting.
Voice issues due to colds and flu should only last a couple of weeks. If they last longer than that, contact your laryngologist or ENT to get checked for any vocal fold injuries. A good voice teacher, specialist, and/or therapist can help you get your voice back on track.
Take care of yourself and your voice this winter, and thanks for sharing your voice with the world!