“Don’t clear your throat—it’s bad for your voice.” Every serious voice user hears this advice. But what can you do, when your throat tickles or drips or you’re nervous about a show? How can you resist?
The urge to clear your throat can arise for several reasons, most of them false-alarms. Here are some tips about how to avoid unnecessary throat-clearing, and how this will, in fact, help your voice.
First, some background. The voice box—in medical lingo, the larynx(LAA-rinks)—has a bigger job to do than just making sound. Its fundamental role is as a valve that protects the airway. Your vocal cords are constantly on-guard, ready to open or close the top of your windpipe.
Too much smoke, dust, or fumes in the air? The larynx coughs or holds your breath, keeping the bad stuff out of your lungs. Too much phlegm inside the bronchial tubes, collecting debris from an infection? You expell it by slamming the vocal cords hard and then pushing air—and crud—out of the valve.
Throat-clearing is a smaller version of a cough: your vocal cords lightly clap or rub together. This is normally triggered when we swallow the wrong way, or have true post-nasal drip, but it’s more vigorous than what’s needed for vocal vibration. When there really isn’t anything to clear out, it becomes a useless habit, or worse.
Repeatedly slamming your vocal cords together can irritate them, leading to callouses (vocal nodules) or swelling (vocal edema). More often, repeated throat-clearing just makes you slightly hoarse or uncomfortable. And that leads to—you guessed it—more urge to clear.
Now, if you clear your larynx heavily and repeatedly, it will create phlegm and “prove” you were justified! But if the clearing was not productive (wet) the very first time, you didn’t really need to clear at all.
Because your body is so motivated to keep the airway clear, your vocal cords can get over-sensitive. Dry weather or air conditioning, slight irritation from acid reflux or allergies, or just using your voice without good technique (like the low-pitch, glottal-fry style that’s been in the news lately), can all make the vocal cords unhappy. Like a baby, they fuss but don’t tell you why. Your throat gets itchy and scratchy and you don’t know what else to do.
How to break the vicious cycle? Get savvier about how you respond to false alarms, when clearing will just make things worse. And take better care of your voice pro-actively, so the urge-to-clear doesn’t arise in the first place.
- Keep water near you at all times, and whenever you feel the tickly desire to clear, take a sip of water instead. This sensory interruption decreases irritation over time, turning the vicious cycle into a positive one. Cold or ice-water is especially good at “distracting” your throat. (No, it doesn’t hurt your voice at all.)
- Develop more consciousness of when and why you clear your throat. If your voice sounds low-pitched or weak just before you clear, practice using a more energetic speech style to stay out of the “danger zone.” This will take more energy commitment from your whole body, but your larynx will be happier, and throat-clearing will decrease.
- If you tend to clear a lot at the end of the day, take more voice-rest breaks, and see a coach about your technique and pacing. Also get some help if you clear a lot on the phone. (Most people are too loud on cellphones, but too soft on land-lines.)
- A vague feeling of phlegm or “something’s in my throat” can be a leading symptom of acid reflux irritation, long before you experience regular heartburn. Cut back on coffee, alcohol, and heavy meals before bedtime; try a quick-acting antacid before long meetings; and arrange for a throat exam with an ear-nose-throat specialist (laryngologist).
- Invest in a few sessions with a voice coach or therapist, to tune-up your technique.
Above all, treat throat-clearing as a signal, not as a mysterious bad habit. Listen more carefully to your throat symptoms, and you’ll soon sound—and feel—much better.