November 29, 2020

Is “Smoker’s Voice” Real?

Gets the facts about what smoking does to your voice

elderly woman smoking

You notice your voice has gotten raspier — maybe even a touch deeper. Is “smoker’s voice” really a thing?

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Smoking can absolutely affect the voice,” says ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist and laryngologist (voice box specialist) Candace Hrelec, MD. “It can affect the tone, quality and the pitch.”

Why does smoking make your voice deeper?

Smoke from tobacco products, such as cigarettes and cigars, has hundreds of chemicals in it. Dr. Hrelec says those chemicals can irritate your vocal cords. “Every time you inhale smoke, the smoke is going right past the vocal cords to get to your lungs. The vocal cords are the gateway to the lungs,” she says. “Any chemical that you inhale can lead to irritation, sore throat and increased mucus and cough.”

Smoking tobacco products can also affect your singing voice for the same reasons. “People often notice changes to their singing voice first,” says Dr. Hrelec. “This is because we stretch our vocal cords when we are singing in high pitches. This allows the swelling along the vocal cords to be more noticeable.”

Other ways smoking may affect your voice

Dr. Hrelec says smoking can also cause:

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  • Chronic cough: “The act of coughing causes the vocal cords to slam together to expel mucous,” says Dr. Hrelec. “This cough increases vocal cord irritation and swelling.”
  • Chronic laryngitis: Inflammation happens when your immune system attacks a perceived threat. For people who smoke, their immune cells’ mission impossible is to eliminate tobacco smoke chemicals. This process leads to chronic laryngitis, which involves ongoing inflammation, vocal cord swelling, and often voice loss or hoarseness.
  • Polyps: Smoking — together with acid reflux — can also cause growths on the vocal cords, which increase their density (polypoid corditis). “The polyps can cause voice changes, such as a deeper voice. If they get too big, they can block the airway and cause breathing difficulties. Occasionally, surgery will be required to remove them.”
  • Cancer: It’s no secret that habitual smoking can lead to cancer. “It can cause dysplasia, which is precancerous changes to the vocal cords and to underlying cells. Cancer itself can also affect the voice.”

Dr. Hrelec adds that if you smoke and notice voice changes that last for more than three weeks, seek care from a laryngologist (voice box specialist) or ENT. “They can look at the vocal cords with a scope in the office to ensure that no cancers are forming.”

Can you lose your voice from smoking weed or vaping?

When it comes to smoking marijuana, Dr. Hrelec says the jury’s still out on voice changes. “I haven’t seen as many cases of polypoid corditis in those who smoke only marijuana. There isn’t enough research looking at these voice changes. People who smoke marijuana may also smoke cigarettes. So which one is causing the vocal cord effects? Or maybe both are? It’s hard to say without more evidence and research.”

Dr. Hrelec says we’re still learning about vaping’s effects on the vocal cords as well. “Vaping is not well regulated. We don’t know a lot of the chemicals that are in these products and how they affect vocal cords.”

If you quit smoking, will your voice improve?

Sounding like yourself again goes hand in hand with quitting smoking. “We usually see dramatic changes in just a few weeks,” notes Dr. Hrelec. “But it may take months for vocal cord and larynx (voice box) irritation to get better.”

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You can take steps to speed up the healing process:

  • Manage acid reflux and allergies.
  • Stay hydrated.

To become part of the smoke-free crowd, Dr. Hrelec has a few tips to make quitting easier:

  • Take advantage of a tobacco helpline, which offers resources for quitting, including smoking cessation coaches.
  • Chew gum or eat mints to combat the habitual nature of smoking.
  • Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation medications, patches and gums.
  • Motivate yourself to quit by considering the health risks and other negative effects.

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