I have a sore throat… Can I sing on it?
This is a hugely common question, and a broad question to answer. Everyone is different and each situation for the individual is different (for example, ‘small pub gig’ vs ‘arena concert’). I suggest you:
- Weigh up the pros and cons of continuing to sing,
- Be willing to accept the potential consequences of your decisions.
Ask yourself:‘Do the benefits of singing on a sore throat outweigh the risks?’
My basic advice for tackling a sore throat is listed below and involves your typical ‘rest, drinking water, avoiding singing and talking as much as possible…’ However, working freelance as a singer/ singing teacher does not always allow us such luxuries!
Sore throats usually are a sign of bacterial or viral infection. You can find out more about the common sore throat here: NHS – Sore Throat Advice
In terms of singing, having a cold can diminish energy levels; give you a headache and a runny nose; cause a cough (which itself is damaging to your vocal mechanism); and cause inflammation – all of which play havoc.
Reduced energy levels
Feeling rubbish can really sabotage your motivation. Do you have the energy to perform? Be honest with yourself. If you don’t have the energy, you may risk putting your voice under strain and at risk purely because you won’t be supporting your sound in the same way you usually do. Poor breath technique and lack of active support can lead to further vocal damage on their own, let alone using poor technique on top of having a cold!
Redness and swelling caused by having a sore throat can cause vocal folds to become denser, reducing amplitude (volume) and causing your vocal tone to sound different. It may be more difficult to hit the high notes with the same clarity you are typically used to. As a gauge of whether performance is possible, ask yourself can you hum? Can you siren gently and clearly without breathiness or pitch breaks? Does it hurt to sing? Then make your decision whether to carry on or not. I would suggest if it is painful – don’t.
Coughing can cause further inflammation and can increase sensitivity within the larynx. This can lead to further mucus production, further throat clearing and coughing – a vicious circle.
Self-inflicted sore throats
It is important to be aware that over-singing, singing with inadequate technique and talking loudly (with poor technique) for long periods of time can also cause similar ‘sore throat’ sensations. Follow the advice given below, and get some good vocal coaching from a skilled singing teacher or speech therapist (voice specialist) to avoid it happening again!
If you choose to sing on a sore throat the following actions can help to reduce symptoms:
Hydrate – lubricates vocal folds systemically
Steam – lubricates vocal folds directly and can thin mucus
Vocal rest – allows the body to focus on healing itself / reduces tension and reinforcement of counterproductive (inadequate) vocal technique
Eat healthily – provides the body with essential nutrients to aid healing
Avoid coughing and throat clearing – this irritates the delicate vocal folds and surrounding tissues, making them even more inflamed and sensitive
Rest – again, allows the body to focus on healing itself.
Avoid dry and dusty environments, caffeine (also in soft drinks), alcohol, and smoking. All of these can dry the vocal folds out. (If you want an image to motivate you on this – think of a slug: moves well when moist… not so well if it gets dried out in the sun. Your vocal folds need to stay lubricated!). Caffeine and alcohol pull water out of your system and deplete the vocal folds of much needed lubrication. Small amounts of these drinks are acceptable but must be counterbalanced by drinking more water.
Another factor that can affect lubrication is a ‘dry air’ environment. This can be from air conditioning and climates with a low amount of moisture in the air. Using a humidifier at night can compensate for the dryness.
For those of you singing abroad this summer – the air in aeroplanes is extremely dry. It is recommended that you avoid alcoholic and caffeinated drinks and drink water regularly while flying.
My throat feels dry and is croaky in the morning… Is there something wrong?
The good news is that lots of people experience some kind of dryness, excess mucus and creak in the mornings. It is quite common that soreness feels worse in the morning and improves throughout the day.
You can usually get your voice back into shape for the day with a drink of water and a little humming.
If your voice is unusually dry and croaky it is worth considering the following:
Do you have symptoms of Laryngopharyngeal Reflux(LPR)?
LPR is a back flow (regurgitation) of gastric contents into the larynx or pharynx (voice box or throat). It is occasionally known as ‘silent’ reflux because people often experience the symptoms after a night’s sleep rather than during the daytime.
As a result of reflux, singers often describe:
- Increased effort when voicing
- Loss of vocal range
- Problems with singing quietly
- Vocal fatigue
- Excessive mucus and an increase in throat clearing
- Change in vocal quality
Gaviscon advance has been proven to reduce symptoms of LPR. You can buy it over the counter at most pharmacies.
There is also another type of reflux called gastro-esophageal reflux (sometimes called acid indigestion). For this, it is best to visit your GP for advice and treatment.
Do you breathe through your open mouth when asleep?
If you think you do, try humidifying the air in the room where you sleep. You can buy humidifiers or sit a cup of water near you in the room overnight.
Is it ok to use throat spray and lozenges to help my sore throat?
Throat lozenges / Cough drops
My advice is to check the ingredients because many cough drops contain agents that are drying (such as menthol). Cough drops can be lubricating but do not take the place of drinking water.
Antiseptic / Analgesic throat sprays
As mentioned in last week’s blog, the body is beautifully designed to tell you when something is wrong. Pain is a cue from your body that you may be at risk of causing damage to your vocal folds and surrounding vocal mechanisms. Numbing the pain you feel with a topical spray may put you more at risk for causing damage because your pain sensation will be diminished. You will run the risk of causing further damage because you will be numb, unable to feel your body’s warnings, and tempted to ‘sing through’ the pain.
What about honey and lemon?
While honey has some good qualities it doesn’t reach your vocal folds directly when you swallow it. Eating honey does not have a direct benefit on voice. Honey does, however, coat the throat and may relieve some of the irritation (higher up in the back of your throat) that causes coughing. Drinking increased amounts of water can be of benefit.
I have a sore throat and my voice isn’t working properly… Should I whisper or just push through it?
Whispering can actually lead to more damage. Whispering is hard on the vocal folds due to turbulent airflow and increased muscle tension. Its best to use your voice in a quiet relaxed manner.
‘Pushing’ to produce voice
Although it is tempting to ‘push’ through some mild voice difficulty, this results in trauma to the vocal folds themselves due to increased muscle tension and increased forces on the vocal tissues. Don’t do it.
Will drinking water before a performance help me maintain my voice?
Drinking water just before a performance can help to soothe tissues and clear some thickened mucus, but it does not take the place of regular hydration.
Your vocal folds need to be lubricated with a thin layer of mucus in order to vibrate efficiently. The best lubrication can be achieved by drinking plenty of water in order to stay hydrated systemically (your whole body system). Hydration is an ongoing process, and it takes many hours for the water you drink to get into your tissues.
It is best to hydrate regularly throughout the day, especially 24 hours before important voice use.
If you like an alcoholic drink after performances, counterbalance it by drinking regular amounts of water at other times through the day.
Why is my speaking voice generally croaky after singing?
This is something I didn’t even know existed until my Speech Therapy colleagues pointed out that after a full weekend of gigs I always came back to work at the hospital talking ‘huskily’.
Simple answer for most of us…excess false vocal fold involvement and the need to reset our larynx to ‘neutral’ when speaking (deconstriction).
In contemporary vocal styles we require a certain amount of well-contolled tension to create certain sounds. There is usually no problem with your singing voice. It’s when you stop singing and start talking that the creak begins. Put basically, you need to release the excess residual tension left over.
I will be creating a video to demonstrate how you can alleviate this excess tension in the coming months. If you would like to access the information (it’s free), please ‘follow’ this blog and send me a message to say ‘Hi’.
If anyone ever ‘diagnoses’ you and tells you you have nodules or something similar – get yourself to a specialist to actually have a look. You cannot be certain of what is going on in there until it has been seen and identified by a specialist ENT doctor.
Don’t let voice symptoms go unchecked for longer than 3 weeks – especially if you are a singer!! Get to your GP and get checked.
Feel free to ask further questions.
Love and sunshine (because we need more of it in the UK)