Contributor: Michael Benninger, MD
Whether it’s on the job or taking care of a busy family, we use our voices all the time. Most of us don’t think too much about our voices until we lose them
temporarily because of illness.
Often this happens after you have a bad cold
that develops into laryngitis
, often accompanied by severe coughing
. Most of the time, your voice recovers after a few days. But every once in awhile, the hoarseness doesn’t go away, and your voice stays low-pitched and raspy. Your voice might improve with rest, but because of work and family responsibilities, often it’s impossible to reduce your voice use. So your hoarse voice persists.
Temporary hoarseness occurs in almost everyone, and almost 20 percent 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 percent of the time in their lifetime and 11 percent at any given time.
Your vocal asset
Your voice is powerful, and it plays an essential role in your life.
For example, researchers in the United Kingdom recently 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 is actually possible to bruise your vocal folds, which can create a scar and may result in your voice sounding less clear.
To protect and preserve your vocal asset, here are six tips to keep your voice healthy:
- Warm up your voice before teaching, giving speeches or singing. Do neck and shoulder stretches, glide from low to high tones on different vowel sounds, hum, do lip trills (like the engine of a motorboat) or tongue trills.
- Get a full chest of air so you can really project your voice.
- Keep your yells and cheers brief. Use a little bit of loud voice, and then bring it back to a conversational level.
- 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.
- Avoid frequent throat clearing or harsh coughing. Try sipping water or sucking on a cough drop instead.
- If you have acid reflux, it can damage your vocal folds in your throat. 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 or getting hoarse frequently. Check with a specialist to manage this condition.
When to worry
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 likely will 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.
Voice treatment guide
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by
U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.