I did a series of posts in the Winter of 2023 regarding myths surrounding the management and maintenance of vocal health when you are unwell. If you missed one of the myths along the way, here they are …
Myth #1 – Taking Vitamin C will stop me from getting a cold.
Bearing in mind that I am not a medical professional…I don’t think there are any guarantees that this is true. But…it could be under the right circumstances. I do understand that there is a difference between a supplemental dose of Vitamin C that might be present in your daily multi-vitamin, and a therapeutic dose that is balanced to really effect change. So, if this is something you’d like to learn more about, I would recommend having a conversation with your pharmacist or GP.
So, what would I recommend you try to avoid getting a cold? Two things:
- Promote your overall mental and physical wellbeing with lifestyle choices that promote balance in your system. Eat nutritiously, including LOTS of vegetables. Get plenty of sleep. Don’t drink alcohol to excess. Get regular exercise. Manage your stress. Process your emotions. And drink the right amount of water for your body, medications, and lifestyle.
- Use the skills you learned during the COVID pandemic. If you rely on your voice in your workplace or hobbies, then you want to do all you can to stay well. This will also be the case if have contact with people who are newborns, immunosuppressed or elderly. That means taking precautions in indoor settings with low ventilation and high population. Wash your hands well and often, and wear a mask as needed.
Myth #2 – Taking cold medication is bad for your voice.
In my experience, there is an art to choosing the right over-the-counter treatments for your particular symptoms. Too often, we choose a treatment that masks our symptoms so we can “soldier on”. But often that masking can be detrimental to your voice. For example, products that promise to “dry you up” to reduce a runny nose are going to dry you out all over. This means that your vocal folds will lack the appropriate lubrication they need to perform well, and you could risk strain or injury. So too, medications that offer to take away your pain will remove your sensitivity to how you are managing your vocal set up in your throat, so it will be easy to overwork your instrument when it needs some extra TLC.
Having said all of that, if you are too sick to sing and you have a blinder of a head cold or flu and have the day off to rest in bed, then taking appropriate medication to support your recovery can make a lot of sense. My watchword for this is “treat your symptoms” rather than just reaching for the same products every time. And keep up your fluids to balance the medication’s dehydrating properties.
Myth #3 – Drinking alcohol and coffee is bad when I have a sore throat.
Yes and no.
Sipping warm liquids can help ease congestion because of the way the steam vapours move through the throat and nasal cavity. And the effects of swallowing warm liquid will bring a soothing sensation which can be very welcome. So, there is no problem with coffee – as it will generate both of these sensations as well as tea or plain hot water.
Drinking alcohol will numb the pain of a sore throat and bring relief – which sounds great. However, it will also produce a drying effect which will probably be counterproductive. And of course, other undesirable side effects like brain fog, impaired decision making and increased risk taking may not be welcome.
I highly recommend frequent sipping of plain warm water alongside a regime of steam inhalation and gargling of warm salt water. Gentle pain relief in the form of paracetamol is better for vocal health than ibuprofen or aspirin. And of course, take a break from talking and singing as much as possible so unintended strain doesn’t occur.
Myth #4 – The way you manage an upper respiratory tract impairment, like a head cold, chest infection, allergy or influenza will determine how fit your voice is when you recover and return to singing.
Ok – this isn’t a myth so much as my long-held hypothesis. Coughing serves its purpose but quickly deteriorates into a habit that outlasts its usefulness. And that is when coughing really becomes a problem. It inflames the vocal folds and can even lead to laryngitis when that might not otherwise have occurred. So, if you can learn to manage your coughing, it could* shorten the length of time it takes for you to return to full vocal fitness.
Check out my blog for ideas on how to manage your symptoms proactively and naturally.
*Remember I am not a medical professional and every person and virus are different. But you can trust this rule of thumb – if your symptoms don’t improve within two weeks, seek professional help.
Myth #5 – All coughs are bad…because cough begets cough.
Yes and no.
Our body is designed with a cough mechanism to protect and cleanse our airway. The emergency reflex that triggers a cough serves to clear foreign substances from your airway that would otherwise impede or stop your breathing. It is also an effective way to help the body clear the lungs of thick mucus when you have an upper respiratory tract illness.
BUT…because the cough is triggered in the brain through the nervous system, it is possible for it to turn into a habit. Sometimes it even becomes subconscious and you’re not aware of it. This is why laryngologists coined the phrase “cough begets cough”.
Most of us don’t realise we can assist our body in removing excess phlegm from the lungs, throat, and sinuses. Taking a proactive approach to this part of our illness is an important skill for singers and professional voice users to learn about. It will be the difference between an illness that stops you working for 1-2 weeks, and an illness that can derail you for weeks or even months.
Try using steam inhalations, sipping extra water, gargling warm salt water, and sucking non-medicated lozenges.
Myth #6 – Whispering is a safe way to avoid straining the voice.
No no no no no! There is no surer way to worsen your condition and potentially trigger long term vocal problems, such as muscle tension dysphonia, than excessive whispering.
When we whisper, the vocal folds partly engage but do not completely close. So, they are halfway between a rest position and their usual healthy closure.
In this position, the wind gusts of air from the lungs rush through that canyon at a high speed. Perhaps a very high speed if you are trying to project your whispering to a large group of people. And remember how moist and tender the surface layers of your vocal folds are. You are essentially blasting them with an industrial fan.
Muscles outside the larynx are recruited to assist in making the whisper heard. The muscles that many singers spend months and years learning how not to recruit while singing.
I maintain this position – either you are well enough to speak/sing with whole body support and engagement, or you need complete vocal rest. Postures of “half-speaking” or “half-singing” are frequently harmful.
I encourage you to try your vocalising with whole body support and engagement. Sometimes our voice is in better health than we think, and we are only whispering out of a belief that we have to protect ourselves somehow.
Myth #7 – Cough drops or throat spray can heal damaged vocal cords.
This one is serious. You should never take advice on the treatment of damaged vocal cords from anyone except your personal ENT or laryngologist. This should follow an internal examination and reflection on your circumstances.
Cough drops do not directly reach the vocal cords inside the larynx. Some of their product is absorbed into the throat walls and the rest is absorbed gastrointestinally.
Throat sprays that are of a particular variety may reach as far as the vocal folds but are more likely to be of benefit to the airway and lungs, such as in the case of asthma.
If you have any questions about damage to your voice, please see your GP urgently and ask for a referral to see an ENT; or go directly to a specialised voice clinic.
Myth #8 – Singing or speaking through hoarseness or pain is fine.
Hoarseness and pain are not sending you the same messages, so understanding the difference and treating them accordingly is really important.
Since any inflammation, dehydration or damage inside the larynx can NOT be sensed as pain, the quality of your vocal sound is a super important clue about its health. Learning to appreciate your personal tone fluctuations and what they mean is a great investment in your singing. Hoarseness, huskiness croakiness, sizzle, crackle…any word you can think of to describe a tone that is inconsistent and inflexible…are indicators that you should not proceed with your vocal load until you know what is going on and whether you need to rest or not.
Pain, on the other hand, more likely indicates a change in muscle or soft tissue outside of the larynx. Whether strain or inflammation, this also needs to be traced back to its source and treated accordingly. If you are an advanced singer, working professionally, with a thorough understanding of your instrument, you might be able to learn to sing with pain present. But it is rarely recommended.
In both situations, the risks involved concern compensation. What does your body recruit to get the job done as a work-around, and how easily will this turn into a problem habit that takes long-term remediation to correct?
Myth #9 – Smoking doesn’t affect vocal health.
The short-term effects of smoking result from the temperature and toxicity of the smoke as it passes in between the vocal folds. These vocal folds are covered in layers of soft tissue that need to remain moist and supple to perform at the high rates of collision we ask from them. Smoking undermines that state of health.
The long-term effects of smoking on lung health are well documented and would obviously impact singing through reduced breath management and excess phlegm. Other long-term effects can lead to a wide range of pathologies inside the larynx, including alcohol-related reflux, cancers and other tissue malformations like granulomas and polyps.
Myth #10 – A runny nose always means I have a cold.
Our mucus alters its behaviour in response to a wide range of changes in our personal health or environment. It could be dehydration or allergies more often than it is an upper respiratory tract infection. One of the giveaways can be that the mucus coming from your nose doesn’t change colour or consistency but is thin and clear from day to day. This is often less likely to be viral.
I commonly hear people dismiss ideas of allergic reactions because either they haven’t had allergies before, or their usual reaction is different. However, our reactions can change over time, or be very short term to an unusual allergen in the environment.
My top tips to work out the source of the runny nose:
- Drink a lot of water. Increase your usual daily intake by 500ml-1L and observe if it helps or not. It’s free and always brings improvement.
- Use a saline nasal spray to rinse out your sinuses and see if that assists in disrupting the cycle of your reaction.
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