by Dr. Melissa Hertler, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist, SageWest Health Care
Today is a great day to take a moment to think about your voice, and how to better care for it!
What is voice?
The sound of your voice is produced by vibration of your vocal cords, which are actually two folds of smooth muscle tissue that are positioned opposite each other in the larynx, or voice box, which is inside your laryngeal cartilage, commonly known as the Adam’s apple.
When you are not speaking, the vocal folds are open so that you can breathe. When it’s time to speak, however, the vocal folds snap together while air from the lungs blows past, making them vibrate. The vibrations produce sound waves that travel through the throat, nose, and mouth, which act as resonating cavities to modulate the sound. The quality of your voice—its pitch, volume, and tone—is determined by the size and shape of the vocal folds and the resonating cavities. This is why people’s voices sound so different.
Many people use their voices for their work. Singers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, sales people, coaches and public speakers are among those who make great demands on their voices. This puts them at risk for developing voice problems. An estimated 17.9 million adults in the U.S. report problems with their voice. Some of these disorders can be avoided by taking care of your voice.
How do you know when your voice is not healthy?
If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, you may have a voice problem.
- Has your voice become hoarse or raspy?
- Have you lost your ability to hit some high notes when singing?
- Does your voice suddenly sound deeper?
- Does your throat often feel raw, achy, or strained?
- Has it become an effort to talk?
- Do you find yourself repeatedly clearing your throat?
- Do you lose your voice completely at times?
If you think you have a voice problem, consult a doctor to determine the underlying cause. A doctor who can best diagnose a voice disorder, is an Otolaryngologist, or Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist (ENT). Your Otolaryngologist may refer you to a Speech-Language Pathologist, who can help you improve the way you use your voice.
Tips to prevent voice problems
Drink plenty of water. Six to eight glasses a day is recommended.
Limit your intake of drinks that contain alcohol or caffeine, which can dry your vocal folds and irritate your throat.
Use a humidifier in your home when it is very dry. Thirty percent humidity is recommended.
Avoid or limit use of medications that dry out the vocal folds, including some common cold and allergy medications. If you have voice problems, ask your doctor which medications would be safest for you to use.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet:
Don’t smoke and avoid second-hand smoke. Smoke irritates the vocal folds, and is a known cause of cancer of the throat.
Avoid excessive intake of alcohol, which is also an irritant and is also linked to the development of throat cancer.
Avoid triggers for heartburn or reflux (GERD), such as overeating, eating spicy foods, eating too close to bedtime (stopping eating 2-3 hours or more before bed is recommended), as well as excessive caffeine and alcohol. If you have persistent heartburn or GERD, talk to your doctor about other diet changes or medications that can help reduce flare-ups.
Include plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in your diet. These foods contain vitamins A, E, and C. They also help keep the mucus membranes of the throat healthy.
Wash your hands often to prevent getting not only COVID-19, but also a cold or the flu.
Get enough rest. Physical fatigue has a negative effect on voice.
Exercise regularly. Exercise increases stamina and muscle tone. This helps provide good posture and breathing, which are necessary for proper speaking.
Avoid mouthwash or gargles that contain alcohol or irritating chemicals.
Use your voice wisely:
Try not to overuse your voice. Avoid speaking or singing when your voice is hoarse or tired.
Avoid trying to talk above noise, which strains the voice. Consider using a microphone or amplifier when possible, if it is necessary to be heard above noise.
Rest your voice when you are sick. Illness puts extra stress on your voice.
Avoid using the extremes of your vocal range, such as screaming or whispering. Talking too loudly and too softly can stress your voice.
Practice good breathing techniques when singing or talking. Support your voice with deep breaths from the chest/abdomen, and don’t rely on your throat alone. Singers and speakers are often taught exercises that improve this kind of breath control.
Avoid cradling the phone when talking. Cradling the phone between the head and shoulder for extended periods of time can cause muscle tension in the neck.
If you struggle with voice issues, talk to your primary care provider, who may recommend a referral to an ENT. If you use your voice professionally, consider voice therapy. A Speech-Language Pathologist who is experienced in treating voice problems can teach you how to use your voice in a healthy way.