Colds, Allergies, and Everything Else That Affects Your Voice
The longer you sing and develop your voice, the more you may realize that there are other factors to consider besides maintaining good voice technique. The environment inside and outside your home, what you eat, colds and allergies can all wreak havoc on your voice, no matter how much you practice. Yes, a strong singer can sing through a cold more easily than a weak singer, but a strong and smart singer will still go out of her way to avoid a cold at all. Knowing how to avoid or minimize the effects of colds, allergies and other assaults on the vocal cords is a must for every singer.
The mucous membrane that surrounds the vocal cords can get irritated from incorrect singing, but also from numerous environmental factors. The optimum state of the vocal cords is warm and moist. Dried out vocal cords cause notes to crack, while too much mucous around the cords makes it hard for them to meet and create a tone. Then you might strain to produce a sound, causing more irritation, then more mucous, and the vicious cycle continues.
Since you can control what you eat, your diet is the first thing to adjust if your throat feels overly dry, irritated or gunky. You'll have to experiment with the following to see if you need to just avoid these foods for an hour or two before you sing on the day of important gigs, or if they are causing chronic problems and must be avoided, period. I quit a five-cup-a-day coffee habit years ago when I realized that I was losing my voice every time I drank coffee and then sang. Tea doesn't affect my singing at all, though like coffee it can irritate and dry the voice. That just shows that reactions are different from body to body, so be your own research scientist, use these guidelines, and find out if a change in diet improves your voice. See my article about what to eat and drink before singing for more on this subject. Coffee, alcohol, and citrus will dry you out. Coffee also irritates the throat, as does spicy food like hot peppers. Any kind of dairy can cause mucous. There are many foods that people are sensitive to, such as wheat, and these will also cause more gunk.
If you have chronic voice problems and/or heartburn, you may have acid reflux (GERD). It's a very common problem for singers and non-singers alike. Many singers have no symptoms except for chronic hoarseness. I know three voice teachers who have dealt with acid reflux, and each one lost her voice for more than a month. When you have reflux stomach acids (and sometimes just irritating fumes) are splashing up and irritating your vocal cords. See a voice or ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) doctor, and temporarily eliminate chocolate, alcohol, tomatoes, spicy foods, citrus, coffee and tea. Don't worry, many people can ease up on the diet a bit when they are better. There are meds that can help if you want to go that route, but they don't always work and can be expensive. Many people have also had great success controlling acid reflux by taking both probiotics and digestive enzymes, and drinking 1 or 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar daily. You may also want to add a pillow so your head is raised higher while you sleep, and avoid eating or drinking for two hours before bedtime.
More on diet: avoid overly cold food right before you sing since it can make your vocal cords constrict. When you eat is important, too. If you eat within two hours of singing you may burp through your song. Beer and sodas will also cause more burping. Plus, an overly full stomach can make taking a deep breath a lot harder.
What's good for your voice? Water, and lots of it, preferably room temperature or warmer. No ice cubes. If your throat is really dry shoot for a gallon a day—no kidding. Ample hydration is one of the most important things you can do for your voice. Honey, slippery elm, and licorice tea can soothe your throat. Herbal teas are also good because you inhale steam as you drink. Lozenges are fine for most people, but avoid the lozenges and sprays that numb your throat, since you could hurt your voice and not realize it.
Back to the hydration thing: air conditioners and heaters suck moisture out of the air and your vocal cords. Use them when you need to, but drink plenty of water to fight the dryness. Turn the AC/heating vents in your car away from your face. Humidifiers can put moisture back into the air if you are running AC or heat. I run one throughout the winter when I sleep. Use the inexpensive kind that just creates steam, and clean it regularly to avoid mold.
"Forget dryness," you're saying, "It's throat gunk that drives me crazy!" If you are positive that your vocal and dietary habits aren't causing the extra mucous, then you may have allergies to dusts and pollens in the air. You should also rule out chronic sinus infection as the culprit, but more likely it's allergies. I'd guess that 60% of my students have had minor to big time allergies. The allergy starts in your nose, you get postnasal drip which reaches and irritates your vocal cords, and boom--gunk. Gargling with salt or baking soda and warm water can clear some of the gunk: baking soda is gentler. Use 1/4 teaspoon salt or baking soda per cup of warm water, take a small amount in your mouth, and gargle on a high pitch so your vocal cords rise closer to the gargling action. You can also snort this mixture or use a Neti pot to clean out your nose, but if you do that make sure to use sterilized water [boil it first then let it cool]. Some allergists recommend that you do this twice daily whether or not you are taking allergy meds.
An easy allergy prevention method is to line your nose with Vaseline or "un-petroleum jelly" (available in health food stores or google it) after you've snorted the above mixture or used a saline spray. Do this in the morning before you go outside where the pollen can assault you. 2020 update: a voice doctor told me this method in 1995, but I just heard from an allergist that Vaseline is toxic to the lungs. You would be fine if the Vaseline stays on the inside of your nostrils, but if you accidentally snorted it that could be dangerous. So perhaps a Vaseline substitute is the safer choice.
During the pandemic many wore masks outside, and many singers learned that they didn't get their predictable spring and fall allergies. If you only get hit hard with pollen allergies for a month in the spring and/or fall you might want to wear a good fitting mask when you're outside during that time.
Allergy remedies abound, so you'll need to decide whether you prefer western medicine or alternative remedies like acupuncture and homeopathy. If you want to go the traditional path, watch out for antihistamines like Claritin since they can out your vocal cords along with your nose. Many students of mine have had success with OTC allergy meds like Claritin, but they had to experiment with different ones (and dosages) to find one that dried them up, but not too much. If you use a nasal spray, aim it up in your nose, not back, so the spray doesn't trickle down your throat to your vocal cords. I've also heard from voice doctors that Singulair is the only allergy medicine that doesn't dry out your chords—but available in a generic form now so it's less expensive than it used to be. But Singulair now has a 'black box' FDA warning that it can cause depression, sleep issues, and suicide. I prefer alternative remedies since they don't dry me out and are less apt to have scary side effects.
There are so many alternative allergy remedies out there that you should probably do some internet research to see some choices. I've had students find a lot of relief with different herbs (fenugreek and oregano oil have helped me), homeopathy (I like Allerstat), and acupuncture. (2019 update: I've been drinking a teaspoon or so daily of a product called Aller-ease for several years now: the company that makes it is Buried Treasure, and it has definitely helped me with spring pollen allergies. NAET (Nadrumipad Allergy Elimination Technique) is an alternative method that has helped many people (including me) reduce their allergies dramatically. I also know several professional singers who eliminated their allergies by changing to healthier lifestyles: yes exercise, no dairy, fast food, meat, or refined sugars, and very little alcohol. It's worth it to them to make these changes because they feel and sing much better. These folks also tell me that they now get fewer colds.
Avoiding colds seems to be every singer's full-time job. You've heard all this before but let me write the obvious anyway: get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and wash your hands frequently. Statistics have shown that people who exercise regularly get fewer colds. Stay warm during cool months. Drink tons of water. A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar daily also helps fight colds by keeping your system alkaline. That may sound weird to you, but do the internet research on apple cider vinegar and staying alkaline and you may end up agreeing with me.
Everyone has an opinion about whether Vitamin C, garlic, echinicia, and zinc lozenges can prevent colds or reduce the severity of the cold. Studies have shown that garlic and Vit. C are indeed helpful, and a singer friend of mine who has researched it says that raw garlic is the best. Echinicia and zinc lozenges are more controversial but I'm convinced they work for me. Remember if you take echinicia to not take it year-round; your body needs a break from it for it to work best. I take it through the winter and stop during the summer. Or try two months on, one month off. Recent studies are finally confirming that certain forms of zinc fight off and shorten the duration of colds. I always keep zinc lozenges around the house and in my car, and suck on them anytime I've been around a lot of people. Though the jar usually limits you to about 6 a day, my brother the doctor says it's really difficult to overdose on zinc lozenges. Remember to get zinc lozenges, not pills, and suck on them instead of chewing. I also take zinc capsules or pills with water. If I feel "coldish" I take Zicam, which also has a lot of zinc in it. The cherry kind is the least awful tasting, in my humble opinion. I wish I owned stock in Zicam, it is definitely a singer's friend.
If you have an allergy attack or a cold (the symptoms are so similar you can't always tell which it is), keep taking Zicam and up your fluid intake. The big decision is whether to sing or not. Some voice teachers think that a well-trained singer should be able to sing through almost any cold, but I don't agree. If the cold or allergy is situated in your nose it's usually okay to sing. But if it's lodged in or near your vocal cords you need to be more careful since you'll be singing with irritated cords. Unless you have a performance I'd skip singing for a day or two. This is a good time to mentally rehearse your songs, listen to practice tapes, analyze the lyrics, or rehearse your band without vocals to tighten up the arrangements.
Here are two things that can help soothe and heal bad sore throats and colds: elderberry, which comes in extract and lozenges (I use both), and Four Thieves: the latter is an essential oil blend that also comes in a spray or lozenges for vocalists, they are expensive but worth it. They are available in the vocal remedy kit available here, among other places.
If you have a performance and must sing, you'll have to decide early in the day whether to rest your voice until just before the show, or whether to do some light warm-ups throughout the day to prepare. If you are really sick and any vocalizing makes you cough, choose the former. Take comfort in this phenomenon: the adrenaline your body releases with any stage nerves you have during your performance will knock out many of your symptoms for the duration of the show.
If you choose to vocalize, start with humming, then tongue or lip rolls that swoop from high to low. The vibration from tongue rolls are great for clearing gunky vocal cords but don't push it if you can't make your tongue do them, not everyone can. After these initial sounds, focus on resonant warm-up words like "Myah" or "Yeah." Slide these words loosely over whatever range you've got, or sing the earlier songs on the workout. Take a break if you voice begins to fatigue; your goal here is to very gently warm up your voice, not wear it out. Get lots of rest and save your energy for the show.
Sleep is a body function that singers sometimes ignore. The most common vocal problem from lack of sleep is a tendency to sing flat. If you haven't slept well pay extra attention to breath support and placement, and perhaps cup your ear or sing into the corner of a room so you can hear yourself better. Naps are tricky: if you warm up in the morning, then nap in the afternoon, you may need to warm up again if you are singing in the evening. Jazz singer Cleo Lane once said that she needed to be awake at least four hours before her voice really woke up. Experiment to find out what's right for you. It might be wiser to go for a run to wake up than to take a nap.
Exercise and good singing go hand in hand. Working out the day of a performance is always a great idea, but leave time to rest before you sing. Any cardio exercise can increase your lung capacity and make singing easier, but certain types of exercise, like swimming, seem to encourage deeper breathing. If you run or work out with weights, make sure that you take good deep singer's breaths during the workout. Crunches are great to do, but not right before you sing: your tight abdominal muscles could inhibit taking a deep inhalation. If I have a performance I like to do a form of exercise that day that I don't need to think about, like swimming or walking, so I can mentally rehearse the performance. Studies have shown that mental rehearsal improves performance. Whatever you do, try to stretch your muscles out at the end of your workout, or do yoga instead. Relaxing tight muscles before you sing is very important.
Here's the good news—Statistically, singers live longer than non-singers. All the good habits that we singers develop to improve our singing also improves our health and longevity. Unless you abuse drugs, drink alcohol or smoke, of course, which are all terrible for your voice and your body. The simple lifestyle changes here will not only improve your singing, but they will enhance your quality of life and longevity.
© 2012/2022 Susan Anders