Sore Throat! Now What?
Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Question of the day: How do I take care of my voice when I don’t feel well?
Some mix of the following three questions comes up all the time if you rely on your voice for work or artistic expression and also live in this germ-filled world:
"I'm not feeling well, how do I protect my voice?"
"My voice is shot and I have to perform tonight. What do I do?"
"I'm not even sick anymore, so why hasn't my voice fully recovered?"
The answer to all these questions is the same- you have to do proactive self care from the moment you begin to feel unwell if you want to preserve your voice! Be more mindful of how you use your voice throughout the day, rest more often, hydrate, and medicate when necessary.
WHEN VOCALIZING (speech or singing):
For speaking, do not attempt to raise your voice over noisy crowd. Just don't do it. And rest a lot. Especially if you're voice is already showing signs of fatigue and inflammation, you should only speak when absolutely necessary. When you do speak, do your best not to drop into a low, throaty/gravely tone that we all recognize as "sick voice". Purposefully raise your pitch and speak higher and more carefully than you might normally. Don't push it.. if you end up speaking in head voice, or at a lower volume than normal that's okay.
Singing when sick? This is not the day to test out your limits and work on your hardest piece. No pushing, no super high volume, and never for a long period of time. Go slowly, and be prepared to stop if something doesn’t feel good. Yes, sometimes not practicing is the better option. You have to take into account why you’re singing, how important it is, and the kind of damage you can do– is it your fifth callback for a lead part on Broadway? Or is it karaoke night with your friends?
When singing, warm ups and cool downs are imperative. Vocalize in ways that are therapeutic: straw phonation, trills, humming. Some examples? Try trilling on small intervals only, minor or major thirds perhaps. Trilling and singing on consonants like M, N, L, V, and Z can be very therapeutic, because you’ll be much less tempted to use excessive effort. Consonant singing (or straw phonation if you have experience with that) also regulates air pressure around the vocal chords, which again helps to manage the overall effort of the entire mechanism. Glissando slides are another great option. Make some big easy, voiced sighs that slide up and down the middle of your range, and little scales that span no larger than fifths on an “oo” vowel, as in “boot”.
It's so important to stay hydrated when you're not feeling well for a myriad of reasons. As a professional speaker/singer, it's even more important. Your vocal folds need lubrication to work well and if you're sick, they're already likely to be red, inflamed, phlegmy and unhappy. Here are some tips beyond drinking water for staying lubricated in the mouth, pharynx, and throat overall:
- pectin or glycerin based lozenges without menthol: I like Ludens Glycerin, Grether's Pastilles, and Thayer's Slippery Elm
- Entertainer's Secret: a glycerin spray that relieves dry mouth
- carry a water bottle with you at all times! You will drink more becauase it's there
- cool mist portable nebulizer: My VocalMist
- MyPurMist: distilled water mist / steamer
- Travel Humidifier: if you spend your day in a very dry space, bring a travel humidifier that works with a regular water bottle
- Ocean saline nasal spray: keeps the nasal cavities moist
SHOULD I MEDICATE?
Disclaimer: There's no single answer for everyone, and you definitely want to figure out what mix of care works best for you before you come up on a performance. I personally medicate just enough to get rid of phlegm, post-nasal drip, and cough with a prescribed nasal spray. That slow drip faucet at the back of your nose is the worst culprit of inflammation, dryness, and fatigue. Mucinex and / or cough syrup at night can be your friend, and prevent weeks of recovery from the damage done by coughing. These medications do dry you out, and so it's very important to lubricate in multiple ways if you plan to sing. See above, and note that many of the lubrication options affect the pharynx, mouth, nasal and sinus cavities, but not the vocal folds. That still makes a huge difference.
Let me also say this, if you're a performer who relies on your voice to work for you on a regular basis, you should have a relationship with an laryngologist who is familiar with your instrument when it's in great shape and can assess a medical problem quickly. Laryngologists can prescribe mucolytics and anti-inflammatories that specifically address the vocal folds, which can be worthwhile if you have a performance that cannot be canceled or a major audition. If you experience hoarseness for more than two weeks, make an appointment to get checked out.