How Do I Look After My Voice?

Voice.jpg

Our voice defines who we are – it portrays our emotions, tells if we are healthy or unwell, young or old. It allows us to communicate our needs and wants, and it is uniquely special to us.

A change in your voice, which we call a voice disorder, can manifest at any age. We can prevent certain voice disorders if we simply look after our voices correctly!

What defines our voice quality? Voice quality describes the voice that is perceived by others, our listeners. The configuration of the vocal tract of each individual is unique - the shape and size of the vocal folds and the size and shape of the oral and nasal cavities. We might describe a voice as breathy, hoarse, or nasal. Vocal tract differences explain how adult and children’s voices vary. 

What is a Voice Disorder really?

Voice disorders rarely happen ‘instantly’, rather they occur over time because of lifestyle behaviours, as well as issues related to our overall health, including surgery. Voice disorders are generally classified according to the cause:

 The Larynx (voicebox)

The Larynx (voicebox)

  1. Vocal Misuse – most common and preventable types of disorders; normal anatomy but voice issues develop due to the manner in which the larynx (voice box) is used
  2. Nervous System Involvement – involves brain, spinal cord, and the network of motor/sensory nerves throughout the body
  3. Organic Disease and Trauma – affects the structure of the vocal mechanism, e.g. papillomas or cancer
 

How do I Look After my Voice?

These everyday tips can help to minimise further damage to our voice and prevent us from developing habits that can be very hard to break!

Hydration

People are often more dehydrated than they realise. Hydration refers to keeping the vocal cords moist both externally and internally.  External dehydration may come from breathing dry air, breathing with an open mouth, smoking, and certain drying medications. The cords can be re-hydrated by inhaling steam (i.e. hot shower, facial steamer, hot-water vaporizer). Internal dehydration comes from too much caffeine, alcohol, drying drugs, or sweating without fluid replacement. Internal re-hydration is probably best achieved by drinking more water.  

PUTTING THIS INTO PRACTICE:

Make an effort to carry water with you throughout the day.  Try to sip small amounts frequently rather than gulping down large amounts at once. 

Replace coffee, tea, sodas with water.  If you don’t like water, mix a small amount of juice or flavouring into your water (ex: ½ and ½) and aim to gradually decrease the amount of juice or flavouring.

Throat Clearing

Throat clearing is extremely traumatic to your vocal cords – causing excess wear and tear.  Bothersome mucous can cause people to have the sensation that something is on their vocal cords or caught in their throat that they need to clear off.  The irritation and swelling produced by the throat clearing can cause saliva to sit in your throat. This causes more throat clearing….a vicious cycle will ensue and the habit can be very difficult to break.

PUTTING THIS INTO PRACTICE:

Begin by trying to suppress the throat clearing.  When the feeling is present, try swallowing hard or sipping on water. If necessary, clear your throat silently --> “huh”. For example, when you close your vocal cords, think of picking up a 1/2 lb weight instead of a 100 lb weight. You could ask your doctor if a mucolytic or reflux medication would be helpful.

 

Irritation

“Everything in moderation” – this sage advice is especially true when it comes to your voice.  Compare your vocal cords to your legs…. you would not expect to run a marathon (or even a half marathon for that matter) and then later do an hour-long leg work out in the gym.  Similarly, you should not talk all day at work and then head out for an evening of yelling or talking over noise.

PUTTING THIS INTO PRACTICE:

  • Avoid lengthy conversations on the phone.
  • Rest your voice 10 minutes for every 2 hours of talking.
  • Talk at a moderate volume – you will have to minimize background noise (i.e. television, radio, party noise, traffic, airplanes, restaurants).
  • Avoid shouting and screaming.  These traumatize the vocal cords. Instead, use non-vocal methods to get the attention of others from a distance (i.e. gestures, a bell, noise or instruments). Try whistling, clapping or horns to show your enthusiasm.
  • When talking to a large group of people, use a microphone or amplifier, face your audience, and sip water frequently.
  • Smoking is very hard on your voice causing chronic irritation and dehydration. Try to stop or cut down!
  • Maintain good water intake and consider using a hot-water humidifier at night when traveling to dry environments.
  • Airplanes are notoriously dry environments.  If traveling by plane, increase your water intake accordingly.
  • Antihistamines/decongestants are commonly found in cold and allergy medications.  These have a drying effect on the vocal cords which is detrimental.  Common medications include: Benadryl, Zyrtec, allegro, Claritin, Sudafed, and any other antihistamine.
  • Rest your voice. Know when your voice is tired and take time for vocal rest periods. This is very important if you are sick or have a cold.

General Health

Your health affects your voice. Maintain a healthy lifestyle and a healthy environment.

PUTTING THIS INTO PRACTICE:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid smoking, people who smoke and noxious fumes
  • Increase fluid intake (8 glasses daily). The voice needs moisture to work efficiently.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Fatigue can cause the voice to sound hoarse
  • Minimise caffeine, alcohol and dairy intake
  • Avoid recreational drugs
  • Monitor alcohol intake
  • Eat a well balanced diet

Consequences of Voice Disorders       

  • Difficulty being heard and understood while using the telephone
  • Trouble being heard in groups
  • Problems being understood
  • Decreased socialization, avoiding things you used to once enjoy
  • Impaired work‐related function

When to seek advice!

 Sinéad Francis, Speech & Language Therapist, Strive Clinic Galway

Sinéad Francis, Speech & Language Therapist, Strive Clinic Galway

If experiencing vocal discomfort for more than 2 weeks, it is important to see your doctor. You may also need to have your voice assessed by an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist. A Speech & Language Therapist is also a good person to receive advice from, in particular around rehabilitation of a voice disorder.

V – Value your voice by taking good care of it

O – Optimise your speaking situations to prevent misuse or abuse

I – Incorporate good vocal hygiene in all situations

C – Continue to care for your voice

E – Exercise your voice as well as your body to maintain it