16 Healing Hints
You had to forgo your usual morning solo in the shower. The song that barely scratched its way out of your throat sounded more like a croak than an aria. You cleared your throat to try again. The sounds coming out of you were anything but musical. If this keeps up, you won't have any voice at all.
Want to know what your problem is?
For you to sound like you, the air you exhale through your larynx—that voice box commonly known as your Adam's apple—has to vibrate through your vocal cords in just the right way. When the cords are scarred or swollen, they don't create the right shaped "container" for that air. That allows breath to escape.
Even a slight change in your vocal cords can render your voice unrecognizable. Your vocal cords contain a central muscle bundle, various layers of connective tissue and a skinlike covering called the mucosa. "An alteration in any one of these layers can disrupt the optimal vibration through the tissue," says Scott Kessler, M.D., and otolaryngologist whose patients include opera stars and rock singers. He is on the staffs of Mount Sinai Hospital and Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.
Damage can occur any number of ways. Misusing your voice can temporarily scar your vocal cords. An upper respiratory infection or an allergic reaction can inflame them. Even dry air can cause mucus to stick between the cords. The result? Laryngitis.
What's the best way to recover your voice? Here's what our experts advise.
Don't talk. No matter what the cause of your laryngitis, the most important thing you can do for your voice is to give it a rest, says Laurence Levine, M.D., D.D.S., an otolaryngologist in Creve Coeur and St. Charles, Missouri, and an associate clinical professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine. Try to go a day or two without talking.
Don't even whisper. If you have to communicate, pass notes. "Whispering causes you to bang your vocal cords together as strongly as if you were shouting," explains George T. Simpson II, M.D., chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at the Boston University School of Medicine, University Hospital, and Boston City Hospital.
Don't take aspirin. If you've lost your voice because you were yelling too loudly last night, you've probably ruptured a capillary, says Dr. Levine. So stay away from aspirin. Aspirin increases clotting time, which can impede the healing process.
Use a cold-air humidifier. The mucosa that blanket your vocal cords need to be kept moist. When they're not, mucus can become sticky and adherent, a virtual flypaper for irritants. Fight back with a cold-air humidifier, says Dr. Kessler.
Steam it away. Steaming can also restore moisture. Robert Feder, M.D., a Los Angeles, California, otolaryngologist and singing coach, suggests hanging your head over a steaming bowl of water for 5 minutes twice a day.
Drink plenty of fluids. Dr. Simpson favors eight to ten glasses a day, preferably water. Dr. Feder recommends juice, and tea with honey or lemon.
Don't use ice. Warm fluids are best, says Dr. Feder. Cold drinks can just aggravate the problem.
Breathe through your nose. "Breathing through your nose is a natural humidifier," says Dr. Kessler. "People who have a deviated nasal septum breathe through the mouth while asleep. That exposes the voice to dry and cold air. Evaluating how you breathe is critical to understanding the nature of hoarseness."
Nix the cigarettes. Smoking is a prime cause of throat dryness says Dr. Kessler.
Lubricate with slippery elm. "Slippery elm bark tea is a good lubricant for the back of the throat," says Dr. Kessler. "Drinking won't lubricate the vocal cords directly. That's because the epiglottis closes over them like a trapdoor. But drinking will provide more water to assist the mucous glands in the larynx to provide a smooth coating on the cords."
Choose your cough drops wisely. Avoid mint and mentholated products, says Dr. Feder. Stick to honey- or fruit-flavored soft cough drops instead.
Beware of airplane air. Talking on an airplane can sabotage your voice. That's because the pressurized air inside the cabin is so dry. To keep your cords moist, breathe through your nose, says Dr. Kessler. Chew gum or suck on lozenges so that you'll have no choice but to keep your mouth closed. At the same time, it will help increase saliva production.
Check your medication. Certain prescription drugs can be very drying., our experts say. Check with your doctor if you're uncertain. Likely culprits include blood pressure and thyroid medications and antihistamines.
Don't strain, amplify. If your job requires you to raise your voice to be heard, why not use mechanical means to make yourself louder? "Often, we don't make enough use of amplification systems to protect voice function," says Dr. Levine.
Respect your voice. If you have a presentation to do and you find yourself hoarse, it's better to cancel than risk doing long-term damage to your voice, says Dr. Kessler.
Consider voice training. And if you find yourself speaking a lot, consider getting some voice training. In a nontrained voice, the muscles that suspend the larynx strain against each other, says Dr. Levine. Training the voice can get those muscles to work together as a team.
PANEL OF ADVISERS
Robert Feder, M.D., is an otolaryngologist in private practice in the Los Angeles, California, area. He is a professor of drama and a professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also a professor of singing at the School of Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Scott Kessler, M.D., is a New York City otolaryngologist specializing in performing arts medicine. He is the physician for many of the performers at the Metropolitan Opera and the City Opera, as well as for cast members of Broadway plays and cabarets. He is also on the staffs of Mount Sinai and Beth Israel hospitals in New York City.
Laurence Levine, M.D., D.D.S., is an otolaryngologist in Creve Coeur and St. Charles, Missouri. He is also an associate clinical professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
George T. Simpson II, M.D., is chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at Boston University School of Medicine, University Hospital, and Boston City Hospital in Massachusetts. He is an attending physician at Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Veterans Administration Hospital. He is also a member of the scientific advisory committee for the Voice Foundation.