It’s Not Just For Singers: Voice Health for Everyone

It’s Not Just For Singers:  Voice Health for Everyone

Singers, teachers and other professional voice users typically understand the  importance of having a healthy set of vocal cords.  But no matter your circumstances, your voice is the major mode of communication in your personal and professional lives, and is an essential resource that should be protected, much like your hearing or eyesight.  In fact, you might even think of your voice as your “sound face” – it’s that integral to your identity.  Though the voice is generally a pretty resilient mechanism, if the system gets out of balance due to sickness or overuse, the voice can become unhealthy or even damaged. And a damaged voice can seriously limit the career options that require a good deal of speaking.  Here are some general suggestions that will help maintain long-term vocal health. 

•  Voice overuse or misuse can come from speaking loudly or forcefully, especially against background noise like music, loud conversation or the like.  It can also result from poor speaking voice production.  Hoarseness and increased effort indicate that the voice is being overused and/or poorly produced.  Teachers should develop and use excellent classroom management to avoid speaking against classroom din.  For those involved in sports coaching or marching band leadership, a portable amplification system can be a voice-saver.

•  A healthy voice that has been over-used typically responds well to rest.  If you wake up hoarse after a particularly exciting LU Vikings or Packers game or a loud party, be very conservative with your voice use over the next several days, that is, speak only when it is essential.  With rest, it should gradually recover within a few days to a week, depending on how severe the irritation and swelling is.  In the future, be very careful not to repeat whatever it was that caused the hoarseness.

•  Upper respiratory tract infections like colds, flu or bronchitis typically cause inflammation and swelling of the vocal folds (cords), resulting in hoarseness.  Avoid the tendency to “push through” if your voice is raspy -- rest your voice as much as possible until the hoarseness resolves. 

•  Dry vocal folds have to “work” harder to produce sound.  Develop the habit of drinking plenty of fluids to keep the tissues well hydrated.  Especially for people who sing or otherwise use their voices a lot in their work, it’s a good idea to drink about ½- ounce of fluid per pound of body weight per day; this is about 6-8 glasses. If you suspect that you are getting ill or are ill, it's wise to increase your typical fluid intake.  Certain medications can lead to dryness of the vocal folds, including over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines.  If you must take them, drink extra fluids to counteract their drying action on the tissues.  Same thing for alcohol consumption: it is dehydrating, though increasing non-alcoholic fluids will help compensate. 

•  Cigarette smoke is very irritating the throat and vocal folds.  Nicotine in all its forms greatly increases the chance of developing oral, laryngeal and lung cancers.  There are very good resources available to help users quit these habits.  As far as marijuana goes, there is a lack of specific research on the effect of pot smoking on the vocal folds, however, there is at least anecdotal evidence from voice practitioners that marijuana smoke can cause irritation of the tissues of the folds. 

•  Other less obvious challenges to vocal health are frequent throat clearing and coughing, uncontrolled allergies and frequent heartburn, also known as gastro-esophageal reflux disorder (GERD).  A voice specialist can help sort out the causes and suggest treatment for all these and other conditions that can affect the voice.

When to get help: if you experience the following specific voice symptoms, you should make an appointment with a voice specialist (a laryngologist, or an ear, nose and throat doctor, ENT, who has specialized interest in voice care) or a Voice Clinic, usually associated with a regional medical school or medical center.

  •   If hoarseness, regardless of the cause, persists for 2-3 weeks or more, get  an appointment as soon as possible to diagnose or rule out a long-term voice  disorder.
  • If you experience a sudden and obvious voice change, especially following a  loud cough, sneeze or yell, you should be checked out by a voice specialist right away. In the meantime, avoid speaking or singing.
  •  If you experience frequent voice fatigue or hoarseness that comes and  goes, it would be a good plan to carefully follow the “voice hygiene”  suggestions outlined above for a few weeks.  If you find that your voice  is not improving, then the next step would be to see a laryngologist or go to a  voice clinic.  A voice specialist can help you sort out reasons for your  difficulties.  Perhaps some speech therapy may be in order, which are lessons  that will help you improve your speaking technique. 

If you need advice about finding a good voice doctor or clinic, contact Joanne Bozeman or any of the Lawrence University voice faculty.

The following websites have excellent and more detailed information about how the voice works and how to take care of it. 

The University of Minnesota’s Lion’s Voice Clinic website is a well-organized and excellent educational resource.

The National Center for Voice and Speech is a leading organization in voice health and education. It features a number of very helpful resources, including a list of medications and their potential effects on the voice.

This link takes you to The Voice Academy, which is geared toward the special needs of classroom teachers. At the bottom of the home page you can link to voice health diagnosis test, with advice for follow-up.

This link goes to a short video of Dr. Robert Bastian explaining how to do Vocal Fold Swelling Checks, a simple method that ascertains whether your vocal folds are reacting to overuse.  It’s kind of like taking your voice’s “temperature”.  This is especially important for those who have had a voice disorder in the past.