Losing Your Voice? What’s Going On in Your Body

Causes and remedies for vocal problems

Do you ever open your mouth to speak, only to find that all you can do is croak or whisper? You may wonder what’s happening in your body when you lose your voice.

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You may experience hoarseness or lose your voice (get laryngitis) when the tissue covering your vocal cords becomes inflamed or swollen.

In another scenario with long-term, heavy voice use, callus-like growths, known as nodules can form on the vocal cords and cause hoarseness.

When this happens, your vocal cords don’t vibrate as easily. This can show up as vocal fatigue, vocal breaks or cause your voice to sound abnormal.

A symptom with many causes

Losing your voice is a symptom and not a condition itself, says Paul Bryson, MD, Laryngology Section Head and Director of the Voice Center at Cleveland Clinic.

“If you have lost your voice, you might find that your voice sounds rough, raspy, tired or feel like it takes a lot of effort to speak,” he says.

Most often, one of these causes is to blame:

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  • An upper respiratory infection such as a cold, cough, bronchitis, laryngitis or sinusitis
  • Seasonal allergies that cause sinus drainage, throat clearing and laryngitis
  • A vocally demanding job that requires you to use your voice frequently over the course of several hours, such as teaching or working in a call center
  • Talking loudly, yelling or cheering, such as at a sporting event

If you can trace your voice problems back to one of these sources, then losing your voice once in awhile likely isn’t serious, Dr. Bryson says. If you rely on your voice in your job, you may find that it happens more often for you and may be more of a problem if you rely on your voice daily.

But, occasionally, losing your voice might signal that precancerous or cancerous cells are forming. So you shouldn’t ignore a problem that persists beyond two to four weeks.

How long should you wait it out?

Hoarseness is more likely to happen during an upper respiratory illness. You’re coughing, clearing your throat a lot and your voice may start to sound croaky or weak. This can linger from a few days to a few weeks, or even longer in some cases, Dr. Bryson says.

How long should you wait to see if it will go away on its own? It depends.

“If you rely on your voice for your job, make plans to see your doctor if your voice isn’t better in two weeks,” he says.

Risk factors such as a history of smoking, a history of cancer or other health concerns should prompt an evaluation for hoarseness that lingers beyond two to four weeks.

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Here’s what to do in the meantime

While there is no quick fix to help get your voice back, Dr. Bryson offers these tips to soothe inflamed vocal cords:

  1. Rest. Aim to rest your voice as much as possible. Talk quietly and only talk half as much as you ordinarily would, or less if possible.
  2. Seek out quiet. Avoid loud environments. They can often force you to talk more loudly (or with greater effort) than usual.
  3. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water. Avoid dehydrating beverages, such as alcohol and those that contain caffeine.
  4. Use a humidifier. This will help keep the air you breathe moist, which can help soothe inflamed vocal cords.
  5. Medicate. Try an over-the-counter medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. This can help ease discomfort and vocal cord inflammation.

If your hoarseness persists for longer than two weeks to a month, talk with your doctor. He or she may suggest a laryngoscopy, a procedure that will offer a better view of your larynx.

“Our ability to better visualize your larynx can help us more quickly diagnose something that might need surgical management or medication,” Dr. Bryson says.

Some experts recommend visualization of the vocal cords before beginning prescription medications, such as anti-reflux medications, steroids or antibiotics.

The bottom line? Most of the time your laryngitis will resolve itself in a week or two, with no lasting effects. But if the problem lingers on toward a month, it’s a good idea to get checked by a otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat) doctor to make sure there isn’t something serious at work.

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