I’ve always loved the winter solstice. As a child spending holidays in Maine, I was awed by the clear, cold, stillness in the air, the moon reflecting on icicles and snow. The sun hung low for shortening days before the season turned around.
People also stop — or slow down — when the winter season brings colds and flu. Singers especially despise these bugs, but a few simple habits can help you get through. Please note that what follows is general advice. See an ear-nose-throat doctor if your voice stays hoarse for more than two weeks, or if vocal symptoms linger when the rest of your cold is gone.
The common cold — what we in health care call an upper respiratory infection or URI — is caused by a type of virus that likes cold, dry conditions. You can ward off some URIs by washing your hands frequently when in public places, and keeping your immune system strong with good nutrition, exercise, rest, and social support. But a further recommendation, especially for singers, is to keep your breathing environment humid rather than dry.
Running a vaporizer at night will make you less susceptible to colds, and more comfortable if you catch one. Take longer showers and baths; if you have access to a steam room, use it! Keep a hot beverage near your workspace, and sniff the steam in between sips. Steam soothes and protects your entire airway, and also helps clear extra phlegm.
If a URI bug does make its way into your throat, the vocal cords can become inflamed. Swollen cords vibrate more slowly, which makes your pitch lower. The vocal cords may also vibrate unevenly, leading you to sound hoarse or rough. Other vocal symptoms of a URI can include a smaller pitch range (inflamed cords don’t stretch as far) and less control over loudness (that all-or-nothing honk.)
Extra congestion in the nose or sinuses can temporarily block resonance, making your voice sound dull. Chest congestion or overall fatigue can diminish breath support. Repeated coughing can irritate otherwise healthy vocal cords. Under any of these conditions, pushing or tensing to try to sound “normal” will give you more trouble in the long run. Instead, a few days of relative silence — plus sleep, fluids, and steam — will help your voice recover quickly.
Avoid excessive use of over-the-counter decongestants, because while you feel more comfortable, your airway will be drier and more vulnerable to infection. Pain-killing throat lozenges also tend to be drying, and may tempt you to use your voice more than is wise. Drink steamy beverages instead, and use that vaporizer at night. (If I’m totally stuffed up for a gig I can’t postpone, I’ll take a decongestant, but only a little and just for those few hours. Consult your doctor for individual advice.)
If you’re fluey and weak but the show must go on, warm up your voice with extra care. See an ear-nose-throat specialist if necessary; some prescription inhalants can knock back an acute laryngeal inflammation. But don’t push your luck by constantly singing when ill. Jazz legend Miles Davis sang over his doctor’s objections, once, and ruined his voice forever.
Also keep in mind that resting your voice for a few days need not mean neglecting your band or singing circle. Have a business meeting, learn lyrics, tweak arrangements, or update your press-kit. If you’re comfortable with meditation or visualization, borrow a tool from athletes and rehearse your songs mentally, until your strength returns.
Many voice patients that I see in the spring trace their problems back to the holiday season, when they got a cold, got exhausted, but sang and talked a lot anyway. Vocalizing with swollen cords and reduced breath support required extra tension, which then became an ingrained bad habit. Six or eight months down the road they found they had deeper voice problems, more anxiety, and possibly-avoidable medical bills.
So give your vocal instrument a little extra care in this season of fellowship and music. With simple remedies like extra sleep and steam treatments, you can bounce back quickly from colds and flu, ready to sing-in the New Year.