With the new year approaching, it seems that everybody is trying to get on a plan to eat healthier and get back into their exercise routines. But one part of the body that many of us tend to neglect is the voice! And wintertime is a prime time for voice problems to pop up. This is due, in part to folks spending more time indoors in dry environments, as well as coughs, colds and the flu wreaking havoc on the throat and larynx.
Vocal injury can range from laryngitis, as a temporary nuisance, to recurring hoarseness which can be a precursor to the development of more serious vocal pathologies such as nodules or polyps on the vocal cords.
What factors can increase a person's risk of voice injury?
Vocally demanding professions: teachers, singers, courtroom lawyers, athletic coaches, telephone customer service professionals, fitness instructors, police officers, and tour guides are at heightened risk
People with frequent or ongoing upper respiratory infections, such as colds, flu, allergies, and asthma
Those that experience GERD/Acid reflux
Some prescription and OTC medications can increase coughing, thicken mucous, and dry out vocal tissues
Exposure to dry or dusty environments or chemical inhalants
Just like we need to eat properly and exercise regularly to keep our bodies in tip-top shape, there are a number of things we can do to ensure our voices are healthy and perform optimally when we need them to.
What can I do to keep my voice healthy and prevent injury?
Drink enough water throughout the day, not just when you're thirsty. If you are avoiding drinking water during the workday because of the restroom hassle, then increase your water intake in the mornings and evenings when you are at home. If you are forgetting to drink enough water, fill a pitcher with water (or set aside some bottled water) each morning and be sure you drink it by the end of the day. The general rule is about 64 ounces of water per day, or eight 8-ounce glasses, or about five 12-ounce bottles.
Use a humidifier in your home and workspace to reduce dryness.
Avoid forceful coughing or frequent throat clearing. This can damage the vocal cords over time. If you must clear your throat, instead of a harsh cough try producing several small gentle throat clears in succession, followed by a swallow.
Avoid or reduce smoking. In addition to causing irritation from coughing, smoking also dries out sensitive vocal tissues.
Avoid excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption as they also tend to dry out vocal tissues.
Get enough sleep. Just as our bodies in general function better when we get enough sleep, this is also true for our vocal muscles and keeping our voices healthy.
Avoid talking too long or too loud. Just like we can overwork other muscles, we can also overwork our voice muscles. This often happens to folks who work in noisier environments, like classrooms, restaurants, and fitness centers, who are trying to talk above noise for extended time periods. Try to maintain a closer conversation distance. Try to reduce background noise. Use gestures or written aids to supplement your speech and give your vocal cords a rest.
Take rest breaks from talking. It is especially important to give your voice a rest when you are sick or tired to avoid injury.
Avoid frequent grunting or yelling during exercise and heavy exertion, such as weightlifting. You can risk causing permanent damage to your vocal cords.
Use vocal warmups such as humming at comfortable and varying pitches to keep your vocal muscles flexible, before singing or speaking for long periods.
If you experience laryngitis, do not try to "talk through" laryngitis. Your vocal cords are inflamed, which is why you have lost your voice. Avoid straining your voice to talk. Avoid whispering during periods of laryngitis, because you can actually injure your voice further. Vocal rest for two to three days is typically advised.
When does my voice problem require the attention of a professional?
If you experienced a loss of voice, a distorted or different voice quality, or a sore throat that persists for more than about 3 weeks, or hoarseness that tends to recur over several months, then it is time to seek the advice of a professional. An otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose and Throat doctor) can examine your throat and determine if a more serious vocal problem is emerging, such as vocal cord polyps or nodules. The ENT may prescribe vocal rest, medications to treat GERD or allergies, or a course of treatment with a certified Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in the treatment of voice disorders.