Whether it’s on the job, taking care of a busy family or gabbing with your mom on the phone – we use our voices all the time. Most of us don’t even think too much about our voices until we lose them temporarily because of illness.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Your voice plays a vital role in your everyday life, but it’s easy to take it for granted, says ear, nose and throat specialist Michael Benninger, MD.
We often lose our voice after a bad cold that develops into laryngitis, which can be accompanied by severe coughing and hoarseness. Most of the time, our voice recovers after a few days. But every once in a while, the hoarseness doesn’t go away – leading to a low-pitched and raspy sounding voice and ultimately damaging our vocal cords. Often times rest can solve this issue, but because our lives must go on (conference calls, soccer games and happy hours in loud bars) the hoarse voice can persist.
Temporary hoarseness occurs in almost everyone, and almost 20% of the U.S. population has some degree of chronic voice dysfunction. This number is dramatically worse in voice-intensive occupations. School teachers report problems with their voices 60% of the time in their lifetime and 11% at any given time.
Remember that your general health will have a lot to do with your vocal health. People that eat well, watch their weight, minimize alcohol and exercise will have the stamina and strength to support their voices.
To preserve and protect your voice, Dr. Benninger suggests these simple tips to keep your pipes healthy:
- Actually listen to yourself. Hoarseness can indicate something as simple as allergies or as serious as laryngeal cancer. If your hoarseness lasts more than a few weeks, particularly if you smoke or if you have no other cold-like symptoms, make an appointment with a voice specialist. Monitor your voice. If your voice is hoarse or your throat starts to feel scratchy due to overuse, rest your voice as much as possible – and drink water to help lubricate your vocal folds.
- Quit smoking for good. Tobacco, nicotine, chemicals and inhaled heat can create inflammation and swelling and cause cancer of the mouth, nose, throat and lungs. Quit chewing and quit smoking. It’s bad for your health in the short- and long-term.
- Don’t let drinking alcohol dry you out. Drink alcohol and caffeine in moderation, as their dehydrating effects can strain your vocal folds. Drink one glass of water for each cup of coffee or alcoholic beverage you imbibe to avoid dehydration.
- Turn down the volume. Watch out when yelling at games. Avoid screaming, cheering loudly and talking over very loud noise because they put unnecessary strain on the vocal folds, and at times can damage the voice. If you must yell, keep it brief. Use a little bit of loud voice, and then bring it back to a conversational level.
- Warm up those pipes. Before you teach, give a speech or sing, do neck and shoulder stretches, hum for a while or glide from low to high tones using different vowel sounds.
- Get relief for reflux. Acids backing up from the stomach into the throat can damage the vocal folds. Signs of acid reflux include frequent heartburn, a bad taste in your mouth in the morning, frequent bloating or burping, a lump in the back of your throat and frequent hoarseness. Consult a specialist for help.
- Don’t force it. When you’re hoarse from laryngitis, a cold or the flu, take it easy. Avoid speaking loudly or at length, and keep from straining your voice and even singing until you’re feeling better.
- Fight the urge to clear your throat. Avoid frequent throat clearing and harsh coughing when you have postnasal drip or a cold. Instead, try sipping water or nursing a cough drop.
- Give it a rest. If you’ve been talking too much or too loudly, let someone else do the talking for a while. Your voice will thank you.
- Try cool, clear water. Drinking plenty of water always helps to lubricate your vocal folds.
Why having a strong voice is so important
Your voice is powerful and it plays an essential role in your life.
For example, researchers in the United Kingdom studied the vocal ranges of men and women in courtship scenarios. Results show that men and women vary the strength, tone and pitch of their voices when speaking to members of the opposite sex whom they find attractive. Another study shows that hearing a mother’s voice helps develop the brain of a preemie.
In addition to normal daily use, events such as sports games or concerts where you cheer and talk loudly may strain your voice. It’s actually possible to bruise your vocal folds, which can create a scar and may result in your voice sounding less clear.
If you’re someone who uses your voice for a living, it might be worthwhile taking a few voice lessons either through a speech (voice) pathologist or a singing teacher. They can teach you techniques to improve vocal efficiency and reduce fatigue.
When to worry about your voice
Short periods of hoarseness following a respiratory infection or after a long or loud period of voice use is not uncommon. With some voice rest, these should resolve within a short period of time.
If your hoarseness lasts more than two or three weeks and is not gradually improving, particularly if you smoke or do not have cold-like symptoms, see your doctor.
If there is significant concern, your primary care physician will likely refer you to an ear, nose and throat doctor, also known as ENT doctor or an otolaryngologist, who is specially trained to diagnose and treat problems of the larynx.
Fortunately, even with prolonged hoarseness, truly worrisome or life-threatening conditions are rare, and treatment usually is effective.
In the long run, if you have a healthy lifestyle and approach the care of your voice the same as with your overall health and wellness, you will keep your voice strong and vigorous.