How to avoid vocal damage

Vocal damage is the the biggest fear of any singer. Maintaining a healthy voice relies on using the voice in a non-abusive way and keeping up with vocal “hygiene” – i.e. being sensible about diet, fluid intake and other aspects.  Well-trained voices rarely run into problems, but it is vital that you maintain good habits to ensure a long and successful career.

vocal disaster

 Avoid voice abuse

  • Don’t yell above background noise (for example at sports events or in bars or pubs)
  • If you feel hoarse and your throat hurts, rest your voice
  • Have regular singing lessons to ensure that you are using your voice in the right way

What should I do if I’m hoarse?

Most episodes of hoarseness are due to mild inflammation of the vocal folds as a result of viral infection.

For the most part, continuing to sing should not cause a problem, but it can be difficult to judge when to stop singing.If the hoarseness persists or if you have an important performance that you can’t miss, consult a laryngologist (an ENT surgeon with a specific interest in voice disorders).

You will have your larynx examined in detail and you can look at the images of your larynx yourself.

Vocal hygiene 

  • Don’t smoke
  • Aim to drink 4-6 pints of water (or dilute squash) per day
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks as these will dehydrate you
  • Avoid throat clearing
  • Try to warm up your voice before singing
  • Consider humidification – e.g. sitting in a steamy bathroom – to lubricate you vocal tract

What does a normal larynx look like?

Normal vocal folds
©Bluetree Publishing

Above is an image of normal vocal folds (also known as vocal cords).

The image shows normal white/pearly-coloured vocal folds and no sticky mucus. 

What can go wrong?

  • Vocal fold nodules

vocal1All singers are paranoid about getting nodules, but if you use your voice sensibly, they won’t be a problem for you.  Nodules happen when you bring your vocal folds together too forcibly – when yelling, for example, they collide very hard and very fast.  This results in thickenings on the vocal folds (a bit like a callus on the foot).  They happen over a period of months or years (i.e. not as a result of a single episode).  They result in a husky, low-pitched speaking voice and a reduction in the quality of the upper singing registers.  Nodules almost always respond to vocal retraining, aiming to reduce the force of collision of the vocal folds.  Very rarely, if the voice is not getting better, an operation is required to remove the nodules.

  • Vocal fold polyp

vocal2This is a fleshy swelling on just one vocal fold. It usually happens as a result of a single episode of vocal abuse – for example, singing or shouting forcibly when you have a sore throat or a husky voice.  Polyps cause the voice to sound husky.  Polyps are not pre-cancerous, but don’t generally go away spontaneously – they usually require surgery. If the surgery is done correctly, the voice should return entirely to normal.

  • Vocal fold haemorrhage

vocal3

Like a polyp, this occurs as a result of a single episode of vocal trauma.   If a blood vessel in the vocal fold ruptures, blood can spread along the whole length of the vocal fold causing a large bruise under the surface.  This is one of the few occasions when absolute voice rest (complete silence) is required.  It is imperative that the voice is not over-used while the haemorrhage is settling down. One of the potential consequences of a vocal fold haemorrhage is scarring – this is a real disaster and can result in long-term voice damage – so it is vital that the voice is rested while the blood is dissipating.

Throat pain

If you have pain that comes on when you use your voice and which settles when you rest, it is likely to be due to  muscular tension.

On the other hand, if you have a fever associated with pain that persists all the time, it may be due to an infection.