Voice Care in Allergy Season
I’m not much of a gardener, but this spring I clearly saw the jade plant on my porch plumping out thicker-than-usual green leaves, after our winter of much-higher-than-average rain. Thriving plant life means more air-borne spores springing forth, to which human bodies often react badly.
Rather than mutual celebration, the floating chemical debris of botanical regeneration brings many of us naso-sinus congestion, sneezing, and phlegmy-drip. More intense reactions include asthma and/or prolonged sinus infections. Even minor discomfort or congestion of the airways can make us tired, irritable, and out-of-sorts with the natural world.
The vocal cords sit between the upper respiratory tract (nose and upper throat) and the lower respiratory tract (bronchial passages and lungs). The vocal mechanism is considered the anatomical boundary dividing these regions, and it actively valves between them. So when springtime allergies are active, the vocal cords can pick up misery too, from above or below, or both. If your nose and/or lower airways are swollen, you might as well assume that your vocal cords are affected too. You might not feel vocal symptoms as strongly as the rest, but the risks are real.
What to do? As Mark Twain quipped, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it!” In the bigger picture, we’re all learning that human choices do, in the long run, contribute to the severity of weather. But within any current season, there’s nothing you can do to change the plant world and its increased pollens. What you can do, as a vocal diva and/or voice-care-geek, is to manage your allergies strategically. Here are some suggestions.
- DON’T SUFFER ALONE.
If you are hit badly by any or all of the above nose-sinus-chest symptoms, get help from the doctors and/or alternative clinics that you trust. The field of allergy medicine—called immunology—is evolving fast, and up-to-date practitioners have better remedies and preventatives than before. Here’s a nice summary.
- AVOID THE RESPIRATORY IRRITANTS THAT YOU CAN CONTROL.
- Don’t smoke or vape ANYTHING while your airway is under seasonal chemical attack.
- Reschedule spring-cleaning chores that might expose your nose, throat, and lungs to extra dust, mold, or household chemicals.
- BE EXTRA KIND TO YOUR VOICE.
Warm up carefully without over-doing it; expect to sound a little abnormal. When the face and throat are congested, resonance and self-feedback are different. Less obvious shifts may be a slight loss of high range, and a decrease of vocal stamina. Breath support may feel compromised or shallow, and your overall fatigue may drag you down in rehearsals. It’s important to work with these limits, not against them.
- Don’t compromise your technique (push your voice) to make slightly-challenged cords sound normal; this will just will teach you bad habits, and could set you up for bigger vocal problems later in the year.
- If you need to fully show up (high notes and all) for a super-important show or audition: be vigilant with every aspect of wellness; limit the length of rehearsals and sound-checks; warm up and cool-down thoughtfully; and plan extra hours or days of vocal rest afterwards.
- Be stricter than usual about not shouting at your Bluetooth, not singing karaoke, not yelling or screaming at loud concerts, or giving in to any other situation where you’d be tempted to “let loose” and stress your vocal cords. What to tell others? “I’m on allergy precautions, so I’m protecting my voice right now.”
- Try using Dr. Robert Bastian’s “Swelling Test” throughout the year. This simple procedure takes less than a minute, and if used regularly, it shows how much your high range normally varies from day to day. When your airway is under extra strain, from illness or allergic inflammation, using the same simple test will help you to recognize changes. Notice that the instructions are to sing very quietly.
- BOOST YOUR OVERALL RESILIENCE, and decrease systemic hypersensitivity, with extra attention to all of your wellness practices. A recent study showed that asthma, rashes, and other chronic conditions in children are worsened by family stress and economic strain. Conversely, de-stressing our bodies, minds, and relationships can help our overall resilience, keeping the immune system from allergic overdrive.
- Stay extra careful in food choices, choosing fresh, nutritionally-dense meals that you know you process easily. Hydrate well to keep fluids moving through your body, and to keep phlegm thin and manageable.
- Optimize sleep, and exercise as normally as you can manage. If you need to lower the intensity of your fitness program because of breathing difficulty or fatigue, at least do a little (indoor walking; gentle yoga); this supports lymph circulation and whole-body detoxification.
- Turn your mind away from thought patterns of self-blame, self-directed anger, or the internal body-criticism that is so tempting when you don’t feel at your best. Medical immunotherapy uses molecules to decrease cellular sensitivity to allergens; why not reinforce that message in your consciousness? Your histamine-and-phlegm-producing cells aren’t betraying you or being mean; they think they are dutifully protecting you from a threat! Send them love and then suggest that they “stand down,” freak out a little less when those pollens go by.
There’s a famous verse from the Old Testament: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Here in Southern California, we can be sure that even a wet and ultra-green spring will yield soon enough to a hot-and-dry summer. Similarly, each season of life brings challenges that will inevitably morph into some new form. Learn what you can from each one, and keep taking care.