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 excellent 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.
  • A voice that has been over-used responds very 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 as little as possible. It should gradually recover within a few days to a week - perhaps a bit more, 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 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. Aim to drink about ½- ounce of fluid per pound of body weight per day; this is about 6-8 glasses. Increase your intake if you are ill. Certain medications can lead to dehydration 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’s dehydrating, though increasing non-alcoholic fluids will help compensate.
  • Cigarette smoke is very irritating the throat and vocal folds. And marijuana smoke is twenty times more toxic to the tissues than cigarette smoke. Nicotine in all its forms greatly increases the chance of developing oral and laryngeal cancers. There are very good resources available to help users quit these habits.
  • Other less obvious challenges to vocal health are frequent throat clearing and coughing, uncontrolled allergies and frequent heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux (GER). 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 (Laryngologist or Ear, Nose and Throat specialist) 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 don’t find that your voice is 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 voice 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, from the University of Iowa. Though geared toward the special needs of classroom teachers, the site has lots of up-to-date information about voice health for the general population.
  • This is 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.

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