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Caring for Your Voice: Practical Tips for a Healthy Vocal Journey

You might exercise to strengthen your muscles, meditate to improve your mental health, study another language to help keep your brain strong and eat well to take care of your overall health and well-being. 

But you might not think about how important your voice is – or take steps to keep it healthy – until you have a problem with it. 

Your voice is probably the main way you share emotions and connect with others. Even if you’re not someone who relies on your voice professionally, like a singer, teacher, actor or public speaker, keeping your voice healthy is important for your daily life. 

“Your voice is one of the first things people notice about you. It’s likely a large part of your identity and it’s vital for verbal communication,” said Natalie Dara Monahan, a speech-language pathologist and voice specialist with Banner – University Medicine. “It’s important to care for your voice so it will continue to work well for you.”

A lot of factors can impact your voice. “Lifestyle choices, environmental irritants and demanding jobs can cause voice strain, hoarseness and other problems,” said Helena Yip, MD, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist with Banner – University Medicine.

And everyone’s voice is different. “Some people have voices that can withstand cheering and yelling while watching a game. For others, that type of voice use could result in vocal injury,” Monahan said.

How does your voice work?

To care for your voice, you need to know a little bit about what happens when you use it. Your vocal cords are made of five layers of muscle and other tissues found in your larynx (voice box). When you talk or sing, your vocal cords come together and vibrate, creating a sound that is then shaped by your throat, mouth and lips. 

Most of the time, your vocal cords function well and you can speak or sing without any trouble. But sometimes, you can develop problems like changes to the way your voice sounds or feels, hoarseness or injury to the tissues of the vocal folds (vocal cord nodules). 

  • Hoarseness is when your voice sounds scratchy or rough. It can come from overuse, infection or irritants.
  • Vocal nodules are small growths that can develop on both of the vocal cords at the point of greatest impact. Nodules can develop if you overuse your voice or use your voice in a way that is traumatic to the tissues.

How to take care of your voice

Good vocal care can keep your voice and vocal cords healthy. Generally, a well body and mind go along with a healthy voice. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Water helps your vocal cords stay moist and allows them to vibrate with less effort. 
    • If you’re using your voice frequently, make sure you’re sipping water throughout the day or suck on a sugar-free candy or menthol-free lozenge.
    • Use a humidifier to keep your throat moist if the air is dry.
    • Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can be dehydrating.
  • Avoid irritants.
    • Steer clear of smoking and secondhand smoke. 
    • Be cautious in environments with high levels of air pollution. Try to stay indoors and use an air purifier if possible.
    • Use a scarf or mask in cold weather to warm and filter the air you breathe. 
  • Treat acid reflux, if you have it. When stomach acid backs up into the throat, it can irritate your vocal cords.
    • Don’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
    • Try over-the-counter (OTC) antacids or other medications.
    • Talk to a health care provider if you’re not getting relief from your symptoms.
  • Use good vocal technique when speaking so you don’t strain.
    • Take adequate breaths and use your breath when you speak and sing. “Your abdomen should move out when you breathe in and move in when you breathe out or talk. For a lot of people, this will seem like it’s the reverse of how they typically breathe,” Monahan said.
    • Sit or stand with good posture so your air flows easily and your vocal cords are aligned. 
    • Be careful not to speak too loudly, especially when it’s noisy. “When there’s a lot of background noise, you naturally speak louder to compensate. You may not be aware that you’re increasing loudness and straining your voice,” Monahan said.
  • Give your voice time to rest when needed.
    • Take short vocal breaks (vocal naps) if you’re speaking or singing for a long time. 
    • Avoid talking or singing too much when you're already noticing vocal fatigue. 
    • Manage stress. For some people, stress can show up as muscle tension that can impact the way your voice functions. 
    • Practice mindfulness and deep breathing exercises that help you relax. 
    • Get regular physical activity. 
    • Talk to a mental health professional if you need help coping with stress.
  • Talk to a provider if you notice hoarseness after you start taking medication. “Some medications can cause hoarseness as a side effect,” Monahan said.

Watch for these signs of problems with your voice

Problems with your voice can be easy to overlook. “It’s not like when you roll your ankle and you can’t walk easily because it hurts. The voice gives more subtle signs,” Monahan said. 

It’s important to pay attention to changes to your voice. “For most people, an afternoon of cheering or some vocal fatigue at the end of the day isn’t a problem, as long as your voice recovers the next day.  If you’ve had persistent problems for more than two weeks, talk to your provider,” she said.

 Watch for these signs of strain or other issues:

  • Hoarseness or a rough sound to your voice. 
  • Throat discomfort or a feeling of strain. 
  • Frequent coughing or clearing your throat.
  • Sudden changes in how your voice sounds, without an apparent cause. 
  • Finding that your voice isn’t doing what you need it to do.
  • If you’re a singer, difficulty hitting certain pitches or maintaining a consistent tone. 

Sometimes, issues with your voice clear up before long. But in other cases, you may need to see a health care provider. Reach out for help if:

  • Your symptoms last for more than two weeks. 
  • You have difficulty swallowing along with voice issues. 
  • Pain or discomfort in your throat persists. 
  • You have concerns about sudden or unexplained changes in your voice. 

Your provider will ask you what your concerns are and what symptoms you’ve noticed. They may record your voice, feel for muscle tension, look at your breathing patterns and examine how the vocal folds are vibrating. 

Your provider can diagnose the issue with your voice and recommend a treatment plan. Sometimes, your voice just needs a chance to rest. In other cases, your provider might recommend that you see a speech-language pathologist (SLP) for evaluation and treatment. The SLP might suggest exercises like these that you can do at home to reduce strain, improve vocal technique and rebalance voice production to help keep your vocal cords healthy:

  • Resonance exercises that focus on feeling vibration in the mouth and reducing strain in the throat.
  • Voicing into straws of different diameters or straws in water (semi-occluded vocal tract exercises).
  • Identifying patterns of voice overuse and collaborating to make suggestions for change.
  • Calibrating and coordinating breath with voice to ensure adequate breath is used to support healthy voicing.

The bottom line

You may not give too much thought to the health of your voice. But overuse, infections and irritants can cause issues with your vocal cords. If you have problems that don’t clear up in a couple of weeks, a health care provider can evaluate your voice and vocal cords and put together a treatment plan designed just for you. 

If you have any concerns about your voice and you’d like to connect with a provider, reach out to one of the experts at Banner Health.

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