Disclaimer: The information written here is meant to raise awareness to certain vocal health issues. I try to keep updated and accurate, checking several sources, but I am NOT a doctor and this advice is based on personal experience and/or information from renowned doctors. Consult your doctor with all and any health issue, including vocal health.
As singers, our body is our instrument, which means that we must lead a healthy lifestyle. Having a minor cold does not prevent a pianist from playing, but singing with a minor cold might result in permanent vocal damage or demand long vocal rest. The first step of maintaining vocal health is prevention:
- Keeping hydrated: singing dries the thin, healthy mucus that protects the vocal folds (think about it; while singing we constantly blow air on them). Keep the body hydrated - drink 8 glasses of water a day; drink before and during any singing session. “Pee pale - sing clear!” if it is yellow - you are dehydrated. Alcoholic or caffeinated beverage are dehydrating - they do not add to the 8 glasses count, on the contrary, if consuming them you should drink extra. Thick mucus is a result of a dry throat, it bothers us, weighs heavily on the folds, does not allow flexibility in pitch, dynamic range, runs or colors and makes the singer use excessive force.
- Humidify your bedroom (and other rooms if possible) with a warm mist humidifier: in dry weather or winter months.
- Healthy diet (important for health and for appearance; the days of the “fat opera singer” are gone, today the public demands attractive singers). Eat regular, well balanced meals.
- Regular exercise: click here for detailed advice what to do and what to avoid.
- Sleep well (7 hours)
- Wash hands regularly (especially after the washroom and before eating)
- Keeping a distance from people who sneeze or cough
- Avoid vocal abuse: yelling or screaming, speaking in noisy environments (bars, parties, airplanes), speaking too low or too high, speaking too much, speaking without sufficient support or on your last breath, loud coughing or sneezing, clearing the throat, talking over a cold, “over singing” (if you are hoarse after singing - something is wrong), singing too loudly, singing out of your comfortable range (too high / too low), singing without warming up
- Develop awareness to your body and voice and learn how it reacts to different conditions, temperatures, foods, drugs, etc. Learn how your voice is affected by your menstrual cycle (if you are female, naturally)
- Avoid smoke: quit smoking and avoid environments with foul air
- Be happy and avoid stress: just decide that you owe it to yourself - it may be easier than you think!
As a general rule: if it hurts to swallow - do not sing. If you HAVE to sing - think twice; this may cost you all the opportunities that you will have to sing in the next couple of months.
When we experience a cold, the vocal folds swell and become heavier; this is why we experience a lower voice. Vocal rest is a must. Do not feel discouraged - this is a good time to work on your breath, to learn some anatomy, to learn new repertoire, learn the words by heart or prepare translations, listen to other good singers and get inspired - singers have a lot of work to do other than singing. You will find out that your cold is over before you finished working on what you planned for your cold... But until you heal - here are some tips:
- Prevent colds - see Healthy Lifestyle
- Learn to identify the first signs of a cold and treat yourself quickly.
- “Listen” to your body, experiment and find natural medicines and lozenges that work best on you in preventing and in treating a cold quickly. I find A. Vogel products to be good, especially Echinaforce® Liquid, and Santasapina Bonbons that I really like (but maybe it does not help - I just love the taste). Do not take any medicine (herbal, over the counter or prescribed) that include an analgesic effect (for example, menthol: avoid this product. It may be good for the general public who wish to feel better, but singers must know when it hurts, it is a good warning sign and prevents us from damaging our voice). Many recommend slippery elm bark tea or lozenges. I found Organic Throat Coat® or Organic Licorice Root teas by Traditional Medicinals and anything with licorice (or drop, as the Dutch call it) to be very helpful (and tasty). And after all those tips, before you go and spend too much money on the best medicines: I heard that taking any lozenges will help: the healing effect of generating more saliva is more helpful than the effect of any herb, and do not forget to add the psychological effect (see placebo).
- It is more than just a minor cold? It does not show signs of healing? See your doctor immediately. Visit your laryngologist, ask them to look at your vocal folds and videotape them. Keep the video for your records, so you can compare with future videos and see if your condition improves or deteriorates.
- Wait patiently and remember to cherish the moments that you are healthy and can sing!
Many allergy symptoms have a negative effect on the voice, especially swelling of the nasal mucosa. It is important to be aware of your allergies and avoid contact with the allergens, as much as possible. Antihistamines are often taken to prevent allergic reaction, but they dry the mucous membranes that covers and protects the vocal folds. If you have no choice, you can take antihistamines but remember to drink more than usual, be aware that your vocal folds are “exposed” and sing less, if possible. Consider other treatments such as allergy shots. You may find in the course of your singing life that you have mild allergic symptoms. Allergy tests may often show negative results in cases of mild allergies. It is up to you to develop awareness to what you eat (see food), to different seasons and conditions and learn how to avoid even those minor allergies.
Many guidelines about food are related to the next subject, reflux. Many foods listed there tend to cause mild (or worse) allergic reactions, increase phlegm etc. Listed here are basic guidelines about foods in general.
- It is healthier to drink and eat foods that are not too cold nor too warm. Especially when vocalizing - drink water in room temperature.
- Find out which foods are best for you; what makes you feel alive and energetic.
- It is important to eat well on a day of a performance, singing demands a lot of energy, but allow a couple of hours for the food to digest.
Reflux Laryngitis or GERD with Laryngitis
The voice disorder caused by backflow of stomach fluids to the voice box is known as Reflux Laryngitis, GERD (GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease) with Laryngitis or LPR (LaryngoPharyngeal Reflux). Many singers suffer from it; this small amount of acid is not painful and does not effect the lives of most people, but it does affect singers who need to have their vocal folds in optimal condition and can feel those small changes.
Visit your laryngologist immediately and tell them that you suspect reflux laryngitis if you suffer from one of the following:
- feeling as if there is a lump in throat
- frequent throat clearing
- warming up takes too long
- your voice tires quickly
Click here to learn how to reduce and treat the symptoms (diet, lifestyle, position and medications). Not mentioned in the link: avoid exercising around bedtime or after meals, avoid spicy food. Some sources warn against garlic, eggplant and banana.
Vocal Health Links
I tried to cover many vocal health issues, but I did not cover them all. Please browse the following links and I encourage you to find additional websites. Remember that not all the information on the internet is accurate; make sure you get the information from a reliable source and cross check other sources. You are welcome to contact me with any vocal health concern.
- The Voice Problem Website: comprehensive information and resources for voice patients. Watch some bad looking pictures of what can happen to your vocal folds if you abuse them
- Health Information about the Throat from The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS)
- Nodules, Polyps, and Cysts
- Effects of Medications on Voice
- Voice Care Tips from the Canadian Voice Care Foundation (PDF files). The Anti-Reflux Instruction Sheet is good but it has some mistakes: I am not sure I would not recommend taking an antacid in liquid form and lying on your left (not right) side reduces symptoms.
- Voice Care Guidelines including, among other things, details about lozenges, throat sprays and gargles.
- Acid Reflux - A Common Throat Irritant: written by ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialists
- Vocal Education: Northwestern University Center for Voice
Vocal Health Quiz
It is hard to keep all the rules written above. Make a decision to improve or change three things in your life style to improve your vocal health. E-mail your decision and we will follow them together.