How to protect your vocal cords

Jane Murphy 14 September 2021

Overuse, misuse, stress and infections can all take their toll on our vocal cords. But the problem can often be rectified—or avoided completely—with a few simple voice-saving strategies…

A few years ago, when I was caring for my terminally ill father, I lost my voice. At first, I just sounded hoarse or squeaky when having difficult conversations about Dad's condition. But before long, I couldn't even say “yes please” to a cup of tea without sounding like an unusually breathless Minnie Mouse. Following a consultation with an ear, nose and throat specialist, I was diagnosed with vocal loss—or muscle tension dysphonia—due to stress.

We're all familiar with the involuntary muscle tightening that comes with the body's natural response to stress. The muscles in and around the voice box are no exception, and a prolonged stressful period can lead to lasting damage to the vocal cords.

Vocal problems may also be triggered by acid reflux, infections (including COVID-19) and all the usual suspects such as nicotine, alcohol, fatty foods and caffeine, which can lead to vocal cord inflammation. Overuse is another major culprit, which is why actors, singers, teachers and anyone else who regularly has to project their voice are often at high risk.

Perhaps the most obvious thing you can do to protect your voice is to give it a rest. That doesn’t mean you have to take a vow of silence. Just try to avoid places, such as noisy bars and restaurants, where you have to speak up or shout to be heard. And resist the temptation to bellow across the workplace or from one end of your home to the other; move closer to people so you can talk in your normal voice.

"Perhaps the most obvious thing you can do to protect your voice is to give it a rest"

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I was referred for speech and language therapy to learn techniques and exercises to recover my voice, as well as stop the problem from recurring in future.

While some of the advice seemed like common sense, there were a few surprises in the mix. It transpires that taking care of your voice is partly about replacing lifelong instinctual habits with new ones.

It’s important to resist the urge to cough or clear your throat before attempting to speak, for example. Coughing pushes the vocal cords together with force, which can lead to voice-threatening soreness, hoarseness and excess mucus.

Instead, experts suggest taking a few big yawns, making sure to breathe deeply from the bottom of your lungs. Yawning helps create more space in your throat and relaxes the vocal muscles.

Another surprise? Whispering may seem the obvious way to communicate when your voice is breaking up, but for most of us, it causes more trauma.

A study at the Drexel University College of Medicine in the US found that whispering led 70 per cent of subjects to squeeze their vocal cords together more tightly, risking further damage. It’s far better, the researchers advise, to aim to speak softly in your normal voice.

How staying hydrated protects your voice

A woman wearing a hijab drinking water

When we speak, our vocal cords vibrate more than 100 times a second.

For that reason, keeping them moist and lubricated by encouraging the production of thin, watery mucus is vital. The simplest way to do this is to drink plenty of water—little and often is key—and to cut down on caffeinated drinks and alcohol.

Inhaling steam is another useful way to moisten the vocal cords. Breathe deeply through your mouth over a bowl of boiling water for a couple of minutes twice daily.

"Inhaling steam is another useful way to moisten the vocal cords"

It’s also worth noting that central heating dries the air, which in turn dries out the vocal cords. Try placing a bowl of water close to your heater to moisten the air—and turn the heat down or off before bed.

More than a third of people who sleep with their heating on overnight suffer from a dry mouth and dehydration the following morning, according to research by bedding specialists Slumberdown.

Why it’s vital to tackle the trigger

A stressed woman hunched over a laptop

What if your vocal issues only happen when you're under pressure? Interestingly, a University of Missouri study found that introverts are more likely to suffer from speech-related stress reactions, which impact their vocal control.

Simply taking a deep breath before you speak can go a long way towards calming the nerves, says study lead Professor Maria Dietrich. Other relaxation techniques—such as meditation, stretching or simple breathing exercises—can all help in the long term, too.

Ultimately, all the voice-saving tips in the world will only be a stop-gap solution if you don’t take steps to address any underlying cause, such as stress or acid reflux.

In my case, seeking more support with Dad’s care—coupled with the speech and language therapist’s tips—helped me sound more like myself and less like Minnie within weeks.

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