Vocal Health 101: How to Take Care of Your VoiceHeather Gross, M.S., CCC-SLP
Have you ever lost your voice, maybe from a case of laryngitis or after talking for too long? If so, how did it impact your everyday life and your ability to communicate?
The voice is one part of the body that doesn’t get much attention. People rarely think about their voice unless something goes wrong! But just consider how important your voice is. It’s the sound source for everyday communication, human connection, and expression. Speaking is an essential requirement for many types of jobs as well. That’s why learning how to take care of your voice, and how to get the right treatment if you need it, is so important.
Voice health matters
First, it helps to understand how the voice works. Your voice is located at the top of your neck, in front of the spinal cord. Your vocal cords are within your larynx, or your “voice box.” Your vocal folds are located at the top of the airway, and they vibrate in the airstream to produce voice. They remain open when we inhale to allow us to breathe, and they close to produce voice and to protect the airway during swallowing.
It's important to prevent voice disorders and educate people about their vocal health, also known as vocal habilitation. Many jobs require their employees to speak for long periods, with little to no time for vocal rest and recovery. Some employees have to speak over loud, noisy environments, without proper ways to amplify their voices. These are occupational health hazards, and they’re just a few reasons that vocal health is a public health concern.
In fact, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 7.5 million people in the United States have trouble using their voices.
The good news is that you can learn to be an advocate for your own vocal health. There are steps you can take to prevent vocal injury and ensure a healthy voice for a lifetime.
Tips for better vocal health and hygiene
Here are some ways you can take good care of your voice:
Stay hydrated. Hydration is essential for vocal fold functioning. It helps lubricate and protect your vocal fold tissues. Be sure to drink plenty of healthy fluids like water throughout the day.
Treat dry mouth or dry throat. If you have a dry mouth or dry throat, try using a humidifier or steamer. Drink more water, and decrease your use of antihistamines and mint. Check any medications you take for possible drying effects. Another tip is to practice breathing through your nose, rather than through your mouth. I recommend a vocal mist for my clients dealing with this issue. Slippery elm and fennel can also help with dry mouth. If your dry mouth is severe, or does not go away with these simple changes, speak with a medical professional that you trust.
Be aware of your breathing. The breath is to the voice as gas is to a car. The breath turns the voice on! Be sure to take replenishing breaths as you speak. Try to avoid speaking on “empty air” at the very end of your breath. Improving your posture can also help improve the ease of your breath.
Breathe through your nose. Try to breathe in through the nose rather than the mouth. Breathing in through the nasal passages cleans and moistens the air before it reaches your vocal cords.
Avoid speaking in noisy environments. Instead, try using nonverbal forms of communication, such as hand gestures or facial expressions. Or use proper amplification, such as a microphone to increase the volume of your voice.
Take time to rest. Include vocal rest in your daily routine. At least 10 minutes of vocal rest–as in, not using your voice–per one hour of speaking or voice use is recommended.
Treat allergies or reflux disease. If you clear your throat often or suffer from a chronic cough, these could be signs of allergies or reflux disease. See your doctor to get to the root cause. If you have acid reflux, try these dietary and lifestyle changes to see if your voice quality improves!
Practice speaking with less vocal effort. This could mean lowering the volume of your voice, or trying not to “push” your voice out but rather speaking with ease.
Try to avoid exposure to allergens, toxins, or smoke in your environment. Anything you inhale touches your vocal cords!
Take care of your whole mind and body. If you’re dealing with chronic stress, you could be holding tension in your body, which will carry over to your neck and throat muscles. And when you’re feeling tired, your voice feels fatigued, too. This might lead you to “push” your voice out with increased vocal effort.
Develop an exercise routine, even a simple daily walk. Get plenty of rest. Eat hydrating fruits and vegetables and a diet rich in antioxidants and whole foods. And explore other ways to reduce your stress.
Prepare before speaking or singing for a long amount of time. If you know you’re going to be speaking or singing for awhile, it may be useful to complete a vocal warm-up and cool-down before and after the vocal activity. You can explore vocal exercises with lip trills, tongue trills, or humming with pitch glides. Straw phonation is a great exercise for preventing and combating vocal fatigue.
What are symptoms of voice problems?
If you notice any changes in the sound or feeling of your voice, you may want to seek care from an otolaryngologist, also known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor. The doctor can help you determine what’s causing the problem.
Some common symptoms that may point to a voice disorder include:
Pain or tightness in the throat
Running out of air while speaking
A strained, hoarse, or tired-sounding voice
Difficulty projecting your voice
Reduced vocal range
Periods of vocal aphonia (times when you can’t speak at all)
If you have any of these symptoms and they don’t get better after two weeks, it’s important to seek a diagnosis.
How speech therapy can help voice problems
A voice therapist can help you:
Develop a vocal exercise routine to practice throughout the day, which will soothe and heal your voice
Learn a new way of speaking that is more vocally efficient (allows you to speak for longer durations of time, with less vocal effort)
Establish a vocal hygiene routine that fits your needs and concerns
Some of the areas a voice therapist can help with include, but are not limited to:
Vocal lesions, such as nodules, polyps, and cysts
Vocal fold paralysis
Taking care of the voice is important for everyone, no matter where you work or how often you speak. However, vocal hygiene is just one part of vocal healing. A voice therapist will combine vocal health education with direct voice intervention or modification to help you reach your goals and communicate with ease.