10 Vocal Myths and Tips for the Working Singer During Cold and Flu Season
The cold and flu season is upon us, which can be an increasingly stressful time for singers, especially for those who make a bulk of their living around the holidays. While we all want to reach for our favorite remedies to help us get through the gig, here are ten myth busters to keep you singing for many seasons to come. Because the long game is the only game in town! Also, when in doubt, always refer to an ear, nose, and throat doctor for any vocal concerns.
Myth #1: Taking products such as Sudafed or DayQuil will help improve your singing voice when you are sick and get you through that tough week of rehearsals and performance.
Fact: Products with a nasal decongestant (either pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine) may temporarily improve symptoms, but they are drying and can lead to vocal injury. The vocal folds need to be well hydrated and irrigated in order to sing easily and effortlessly. It is recommended to use these sparingly or to refrain from using them at all.
Myth #2: A question I often get from singers is: “Is it dangerous for my voice to sing with a common cold? I sound terrible”.
Fact: While it is not ideal to sing when you are sick, sometimes it cannot be avoided. The common cold can create inflammation in the vocal folds, limit the pitch range or mobility, lower your pitch, and can even leave you sounding gravely or dull. If you have had symptoms for more than two weeks make sure to consult an ear, nose, and throat doctor. Be mindful while warming up and try not to overdo it. Make sure you are well hydrated, try to avoid throat clearing, and speak at a quiet level or not at all when you are off stage.
Myth #3: Numbing my voice before singing will help get me through the performance.
Fact: The drug phenol, which is found in most numbing sprays, is a local anaesthetic and can block pain receptors and nerve endings. While most of these sprays don’t work or only work momentarily, blocking any pain receptors and sensory feedback is actually quite dangerous. Singers are much like olympic athletes: they put a heavy demand on the body. Due to this demand, we need heightened awareness and sensory feedback from our body to keep us aware of what we need to take care of our body.
Myth #4: Menthol drops will help me ease my pain and keep my vocal folds hydrated and slippery.
Fact: Menthol is drying and irritating to our voices! While the feeling of cooling eucalyptus seems relieving, these tasty little morsels dry the vocal folds and numb your throat. Instead try vaporizing at night or drinking a steamy caffeine-free tea or hot water. You can also try a menthol free throat lozenge like Grenther’s Pastilles.
Myth #5: All drugs are bad for my voice. There is nothing I can take to help relieve this mucous.
Fact: If you are struggling from climate changes due to travel, airplanes, indoor heating and dealing with thick mucus try the mucolytic, Guaifenesin. It can be used to thin mucous and add fluid to the vocal folds, which can counteract symptoms of the common cold or climate-related drying conditions. Make sure to buy the bottle of Mucinex (or the generic version of the same drug) that is white with blue font. The only active ingredient should be Guaifenesin.
Myth #6: Nothing will help my gravely, mucous filled voice! I am doomed to sound like this for the season.
Fact: The semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, such as straw phonation increase range and mobility, and often temporarily clear out some of those mucosal cobwebs that get in the way before we have to sing. Try some of the examples from this video by renowned vocal scientist Dr. Titze.
Myth #7: Having whiskey or alcohol during my gig will loosen up, numb my voice, and make me sing better.
Fact: Don’t we wish this were true! Alcohol is a diuretic which removes fluid from the vocal folds. Dehydration of the vocal folds increases the amount of air pressure needed to vibrate vocal folds. Over time this could lead to vocal injury.
Myth #8: Using a vaporizer/humidifier with a cold will make me more congested.
Fact: When winter comes our houses are often pushing out forced hot air or drying heat. This can have a drying effect on our sinuses and vocal folds. Singers want to keep their voices hydrated. Humidifiers are recommended to keep nasal passages and vocal folds moist for surface hydration. Vaporizing can actually ease stuffiness and help you breathe better.
Make sure your humidifier is properly cleaned in order to avoid mold spores. A recommendation at least 30% but ideally 40% humidity for home environment is helpful.
Myth #9: Advil, Ibuprofen, and Aspirin will relieve the swelling and pain in my throat.
Fact: While they may relieve pain temporarily, these attractive little pain relievers also known as NSAIDs should be avoided by singers almost entirely if possible. NSAIDs thin blood in the body overall and in of the vocal folds, which can create vocal hemorrhaging, especially coupled with dehydration and back to back gigs! An alternative to this would be Tylenol, which does not thin blood.
Myth #10: “It hurts! Why?”
While not a myth, many singers experience fear around vocal pain. Since the vocal folds do not transmit pain — only obstruction such as difficulty swallowing — what you sense may be due to muscle tension/tightness associated with inflammation of the vocal cords (a compensatory result). Semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, like straw phonation into a half-full water bottle, can decrease inflammation and improve function. If pain persists get thee to an ENT.
Information for this article is derived from the book “Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation” by Kitty Verdolini Abbott and Ingo Titze and from the NCVS website.
Jenee Halstead is founder of Inner Song and a holistic vocal and self-expression coach, performer, energy healer and songwriter. Her mission is to help others align with their soul and divine spark, to embody and empower themselves to live a fully aligned, expressed, whole and healthy self.
Every single Oxford comma added by Joshua Glasner.