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Having a strong and healthy voice is imperative to everyday life, especially for those in professions with high vocal demands—from pop singers to grade school teachers.
Do you know how to take care of yours?
There are many factors contributing to the overall quality and function of the voice system. Every time you talk, the vocal folds vibrate, producing sound. However, if misused, these vocal folds can become damaged.
According to Dr. Phillip Song, laryngologist (throat/voice specialist) at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, there is an ideal set of environmental conditions that enable the larynx (voice box) to produce a sound. With the right balance of muscle contraction, air flow and lubrication, you should be able to produce a clean acoustic signal. When one of these factors is altered, then your voice is not going to work as efficiently.
Some of the most common causes to these alterations include:
- Vocal strain and overuse
- Upper respiratory infections
- Growths on the vocal folds
- Inflammation caused by gastroesophagel reflux (acid reflux, heartburn, GERD)
Many of these problems can be easily treated—or even avoided—if you follow these tips from Dr. Song for maintaining vocal hygiene:
- Know when to rest your voice
Vocal fatigue is more common than you think. When ignored, vocal symptoms will be prolonged and worsened. When your voice is fatigued, it needs rest. If your job requires you to constantly talk, find time for breaks without talking. If you are hoarse because you are sick, avoid speaking. If you must speak, do so easily and without force. Try to refrain from using extremes in vocal range—which includes both screaming and whispering—and keep your body rested. Please note, if you aren’t experiencing voice difficulties, there is no need to refrain from speaking, just be alert when you experience changes in your voice.
- Keep yourself hydrated
It’s simple: Being well hydrated helps your voice. Loss of hydration can result in less vocal fold flexibility, and when this happens, it can require extra effort to speak, putting a strain on your vocal folds. It is recommended to keep yourself hydrated, make sure your room is at a good humidity, and breathe through your nose to keep the mucus on your vocal cords appropriately lubricated.
- Watch your diet
Dietary choices can have negative effects on your voice. Consuming spicy foods, caffeine or alcohol can trigger your gastroesophagel reflux, resulting in swelling or irritation in your throat and larynx. Dehydrating foods and beverages can also cause dryness and irritation. Making an effort to manage your dietary choices and avoid reflux triggers and dehydrators will help you avoid voice-related complications.
- Take care of your body
Anything that impacts the body can also impact your voice. Keeping yourself in shape and healthy will help keep your voice strong. Exercising plays an important role in your voice, because it increases muscle tone and leads to better posture and breathing habits, which can help you speak more effectively. Your voice will respond to different changes in your body—so if you are, for example, sleep deprived, your voice may become fatigued and if you are well rested, your voice will respond better, too.
- Avoid airborne irritants, especially smoke
It is important to be aware of what is in the air you are breathing. Everything we breathe passes through the larynx and over the vocal folds, and aeroallergens (pollens, molds) and irritants (dusts, smoke) can cause inflammation and, over time, can change the consistency of the covers of the vocal folds. Smoking (tobacco, marijuana, etc.) in particular is dangerous as first or second-hand exposure can lead to swelling/thickening of the vocal folds (Reinke’s edema), leukoplakia or cancer. Reducing your exposure to airborne irritants is highly encouraged, but if you must be exposed, try limiting the amount of time you are exposed and covering your mouth when possible.
- Be aware of the impacts your medications may have on your voice
Medication side effects can be harmful to your voice. If the medications have a dehydrating effect or cause coughing, the vocal folds can easily dry out, becoming swollen or irritated. Before taking a medication, it is recommended to talk to your doctor about the effects it can have on your voice, especially if you rely on your voice for work. Your doctor will be able to help you properly manage the side effects or change medications, if needed.
- Avoid clearing your throat
We have all been here: Clearing our throats over and over because we feel a tickle. Often, this is just a sensation of irritation, and there is no mucus that needs to be cleared. On occasion, you may feel a sense of relief after clearing your throat, but in the end, you may have done more harm than good. Unnecessary throat clearing results in a cycle of irritation that can result in chronic throat clearing. Try hard swallows with or without water to help alleviate the discomfort.
- Know when to seek care
Many people go without treating their voice simply because they are not aware that voice-related problems can be relieved with the right treatment. Knowing when to call your doctor is the most important step to maintaining a healthy voice. You should report changes in your voice to your doctor and seek the care of an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) to evaluate the problem. If you have voice changes lasting more than two weeks that are not associated with a current upper respiratory infection, or if your laryngitis lasts more than two weeks after your upper respiratory infection has gone away, it’s time to seek help.
Knowing your voice is the key to keeping it healthy. Find time to learn what environmental and dietary factors impact your voice and add voice care steps to your daily routine. Your voice is a valuable part of who you are, so it is important to always treat it that way.