And just like that, it’s January. The skies are grey, the roads are grey. Basically, everything is grey. Going back to work after the holidays, or into rehearsal after a long time off, can be tough.
Suddenly you’re back to loads of meetings and “Sharon, you’re muted”, or you're bringing your business online, which now has you speaking direct to camera way more than you ever did before, or you're keeping your spirits up while rehearsing masked and shielded, in an empty theatre, plenty of feet apart.
Combine this with underlying stress, dry weather, and speaking outdoors from behind a mask (which dampens your sound) you might find your voice suffers this time of year. And when every tickle in your throat sends off alarm bells in a pandemic, you want prevention or relief fast, ideally without having to leave the house.
The truth is, your vocal health is connected to, and reflects the health of your body in general. Lifestyle choices like getting enough rest and hydration are both good for your voice and your health overall.
Hydration is especially critical in keeping your voice (and all of you) working properly, so if your throat is feeling dry, reach for a glass of water. It can be tempting to grab something sweeter. Or caffeinated. Or even alcoholic at the end of a work day (I do love a glass of red!). But if you’re looking to support your voice, water is best. And if you’re really bored with water, try infusing it with fruit. Chop up strawberries and let them sit in the water. Delish and pretty!
Using a humidifier can also help you stay hydrated. Ideally the humidification of your home and bedroom should be 40 - 50%. Just make sure you clean your humidifier regularly. Bacteria can grow in there! ("EEEWW, David!")
Smoking, Reflux, & Medications
We're pretty woke to this in 2021, but smoking is bad for your health (gasp). Smoke of all kinds is irritating to the vocal folds, and makes them more vulnerable to injury and illness. This includes vaping and pot. I remember how shocked I was to find out that marijuana burns hotter than tobacco, and can even result in thermal burns.
Acid reflux can be a tricky one. This can feel like burning in the throat, hoarseness, a lump in your throat, or difficulty swallowing. If you suspect you may have reflux, try to identify your triggers and avoid them. If it's still happening despite some behaviour modification, go see your GP.
A word about medications. Side effects on the voice from various medications aren't frequently discussed, but they're more common that you might think. Over-the-counter remedies many of us have in our medicine cabinets can dry out the vocal folds such as: antihistamines, decongestants, and sleeping pills. Prescription medicines like hormones, and some antibiotics also play a role. A safe guideline for the professional voice user is to ask your doctor or pharmacist how anything you're taking may affect your voice. There are also lozenges and sprays out there intended to numb pain from a sore throat. These really need to be used with caution, as they dull your awareness and can cause you not to feel if you're straining your voice, and end up being more of a harm than a help. If you're performing or speaking publicly, it's really important that you don't use these before a gig. It's much better to feel what's going on, and adjust accordingly.
Here’s a few tasty home remedies to soothe your throat with items you probably have in your fridge or pantry:
Lemon. Squeeze half a lemon into a litre of water. Put it in a bottle or stick it in the fridge and it will be ready for you whenever you want it.
Honey. Honey is a natural antiseptic, so if you do have a little cough happening, it’s a great way to soothe your throat.
Ginger. Also an anti-inflammatory, ginger can give you a whole new flavor to explore when you’re out of lemon. Put a few slices of peeled ginger root into a pot with hot water and let it steep.
Try all three! You can buy lemon ginger tea at the store, and toss in a spoonful of honey, or use your own lemon and ginger (much yummier) to get the taste exactly the way you like it.
Reach for Decaf
Not all teas are created equal, and if you’re looking for something warm to drink that will also help your throat, choose decaffeinated tea. Black and green tea have caffeine, while rooibos and herbal teas like peppermint, fruit teas, and chamomile don’t.
No Time to Drink?
If you’re in a rush and don’t have time to wait for the kettle to boil, try a hydrating snack. Cucumbers, celery, strawberries and watermelon all have a high water content. So if you’re looking for something to grab and go, try one of these.
Food & Drink to Avoid
All in all, the key here is to avoid anything too sweet, caffeinated, or sticky - like dairy, which mucus can adhere to, and make you feel like you've got more phlegmy. (Don't clear your throat a bunch if that's the case. Try swallowing or humming instead).
And if you really can’t do without the cup of coffee (I get it. Coffee is LIFE), just rinse out your mug when you’re done and have a glass of water from the same cup, so you know you’re at least putting in any water you might lose with the caffeine.
When To Seek Help From Your Doc
This is an important one. What follows are some suggestions from me, but go with your gut on this, folks. If it feels like something is going on with your voice, don't hesitate to ask for a referral to an Ortolaryngologist. If you're in Toronto, The Voice Clinic at St. Mike's is one excellent option, and they have great regard and care for the professional voice.
Any of the following symptoms persisting for more than a week or two is a sign you need to look deeper:
- a change in the sound or quality of your voice
- an inability to sing or speak the way you usually can
- pain or discomfort when voicing
- chronic throat clearing
- an inability to get volume
- vocal fatigue - at the end or work week your voice is exhausted, or you have no voice
- recurring or persisting laryngitis
- persistent hoarseness
Set Your Voice Free
If you’re looking for more ways to (gently) free your speaking voice, my mini-course, Freedom in 5, will help you get going by sharing five pillars of voice work in an accessible and actionable way. Just 5 minutes in 5 days is all you need to begin setting your voice free. Click here to sign up!