The winter drags on, with low temperatures, damp and storm and there is no sign of being able to turn down the heating. If you use your voice professionally, and losing it could cost you days of work and even opportunities and promotions, these conditions are a threat to vocal health. So what can you do to protect your voice and keep it functioning well this winter?
There are three major factors that we can look at. The first factor is the obvious environmental shift that happens when the temperature drops and the voice is subjected to great cold. Secondly there are the winter ailments; laryngitis, colds, flu, the lot. And lastly, dark winter nights can bring greater socialising, usually inside where noise, dust and other environmental factors play their part in stressing the voice. Let’s look at these one by one.
In winter it gets cold outside. Kind of obvious, but worth looking at in terms of what happens to the voice. Cold affects the whole body. If we aren’t dressed warmly enough, we hug ourselves more tightly, narrowing the body and stiffening the muscles in an attempt to defeat the cold. If we want muscles to be soft and stretchy, we warm them up, literally raising the temperature of the body. So the reverse, cold, causes muscles to stiffen. This means that the muscles that create the voice are also cold and stiff, whether the tiny muscles of the larynx or the big, deep support muscles. This can easily lead to less support being available for the voice and a greater possibility of strain.
Cold air is also very drying for our nasal passages and throat. The majority of winter viruses love cold dry conditions. So one reason that we get more upper respiratory ailments in winter is because the cold weather conditions favour the bugs. Heat is another problem. When we heat out homes, we tend to dry the air out. This adds to the drying of the respiratory tract (making sickness more likely) and also to any irritation of the vocal folds. So the first line of defence against the winter and protection for your voice is as follows:
- Keep your environment humid, 35% humidity if possible to help keep your ‘tubes’ hydrated and thus a little more impervious to virus.
- Keep your body hydrated. If you have hot drinks to warm up, try herbal teas rather than dehydrating caffeine drinks. Drink till your pee is pale!
- Breath through your nose outside, rather than gulping cold air through your mouth.
- Keep your whole body wrapped up warm to avoid stiffening the muscles and narrowing your physicality.
- And wrap up your throat warmly as soon as it gets cold, to keep your larynx and vocal folds nice and toasty.
- Spend longer warming up the body and voice to ensure that any narrowing or stiffening effects from the cold are worked out.
Keeping your body and nasal passageways and throat hydrated and steamed will help with the avoidance of respiratory viruses, which like a dry environment, but taking other steps to avoid the coughs and colds of winter are also advised. Washing your hands regularly will help. As well as general good diet and rest.
However, if you do get ill, then you need to take steps to look after yourself. In general not every kind of cold needs to stop you using your voice, although all types should encourage you to rest more. Steps to take if the bugs take hold of you are as follows:
- Rest more and rest your voice more. This is obvious, but still needs to be said. Often an infection can lead to inflammation of the vocal folds. Continually using the voice doesn’t allow this inflammation to go down. Rest does.
- Take in huge amounts of moisture, both drinks and steam. This is not just for sickness prevention, as mentioned above, but to help make the mucus collecting in your sinuses and throat liquid so it drains more easily.
- To help with reducing mucus, you could also avoid nuts, dairy, chocolate, dust and allergens. And don’t smoke! (but you knew that…).
- Don’t try to sound normal! Even if you are successful in draining some of the mucus, there is bound to be some left. So the resonance of your voice will be reduced as some of the resonant spaces are filled up. And if there is inflammation at the vocal folds, then that will also affect your voice. A small amount of inflammation will result in a lower pitch as the vocal folds work more slowly. More inflammation could lead to the vocal folds only partially closing (a croaky or hoarse sound), or not closing at all, when you will lose your voice. Trying to sound normal will invariably end up with you straining and forcing your voice and exacerbating any irritation at the vocal folds.
- Work your support. Because resonance is reduced, your voice will have to produce more actual voice for less actual volume. And if you’ve been ill, then your support muscles, like all of your muscles, may be a little weak. So proper preparation and warming of your support muscles is vital if you are going to use a voice under the strain of a virus.
- Rest your voice, but don’t whisper. Whispering actually requires the vocal folds to be stretched very taut and therefore requires much greater work by the surrounding muscles. And this inhibits recovery. Speak normally at a low pitch and volume.
- Decide whether you are actually able to work. If you are only suffering nasal congestion, then it is usually possible to use the voice, with the above provisos. If you have throat symptoms, and in particular any pain, then you are very advised not to. Above all, don’t use anaesthetic throat lozenges to force through pain. The pain is doing a vital job of telling you there is something wrong and if you block this signal, you are much likelier to strain your voice. Many summer voice issues are caused by vocal strain initiated in the winter months. Other forms of throat lozenges can be very drying, so they should also be used with great caution. Your best friend is moisture, and many people swear by lemon, ginger, hot water and honey.
- Lastly, seek help if you are still croaky and vocally abnormal after 2-3 weeks, especially if the other cold symptoms have gone. A laryngologist is also the port of call if you simply have to go on. If there is no possibility of avoiding performing, then a one off course of steroids can help the voice last for a brief period. But their use should be very limited if you take the longer term care for your voice at all seriously.
The last issue then is how to vocally survive the party season. This links very closely with the above two areas. Winter parties are for the most part indoors. Germs mingle freely. The heating is on, leading to a dry atmosphere. There may be music playing, so that extra volume or brighter vocal tone is required to be heard, just as a cold may have reduced your resonance, lowered your pitch and weakened your support. Alcohol and other substances can both lead to more excited vocal use and dehydrate the body. And even spicy food and late-night dinners can cause issues of acid reflux, which is another fairly common cause of laryngitis. Again the advice is quite simple, but you’ll need a little self-discipline to follow it.
- Don’t shout. You might be tempted to at football matches (where your vocal folds are likely to be cold and unready for intense use), at loud parties (where, music, cutlery, other voices are the problem), or just because you’re drunk or excited.
- Instead use other ways to make yourself heard. At a football match, wave something, but don’t try to compete with the environment. At parties and social events, try pitching your voice over or under the pitch range of the music, and use clearer diction to get your thoughts across without forcing your voice.
- And don’t eat too late. If you think you have a problem with acid reflux, then simply not eating late can really help. Raising your pillow can help (although at risk of tensing your neck). And some people find avoiding spicy food works well for them.
Lastly, if you are really stuck with no voice and no way of performing, but you still want to rehearse, then take a leaf from top sportsmen and women. Rehearse imaginatively. Visualise moves, and run lines, melodies, scenes and speeches in your mind. Preferably whilst in the shower, breathing in lots of steam.