To cheekily make use of Gollum’s favorite word in the whole wide world, your voice is your "precious". Just like you can never replace your health or youth once it is gone, you need to look after the one voice that you have been given.
Adele, Björk and Rod Stewart are just three examples of singers who have had their singing careers affected by vocal cord damage and other problems.
Strain, overuse, illness, stress, voice nodules (growths) and incorrect singing technique are all but a few of the factors that can affect your vocal cords negatively. Undergoing surgery can fix the problem at times, but “prevention is better than cure.”
Avoid These Vocal Actions
We might not even realise that certain vocal actions can cause damage to our vocal cords, but unfortunately, it is a reality. Celine Dion, for example, would try to avoid crowded rooms as she would have to speak in an elevated tone.
Similarly, you can also avoid yelling, singing at a loud volume for lengthy periods of time, overusing your voice and not resting it sufficiently. All of these place unnecessary strain and undue pressure on your voice.
If it hurts, stop singing and rest your voice. If the pain or irritation does not subside, consult a professional as soon as possible.
Also, if you feel an irritation in your throat and am tempted to clear it, opt for a sip of water instead. Throat clearing can be viewed as a slap to your cords and should be avoided as far as possible.
Consult a Professional
If your schedule and finances allow, consider going for professional singing lessons. A teacher can educate you in a variety of ways, including the best way to use your voice, proper breathing technique and warm up exercises. A teacher can also show you what not to do and which vocal activities to avoid.
At the end of the day, no one knows you body better than you. If your voice feels consistently sore, strained, irritated, hoarse or has suddenly changed, make an appointment with your local doctor or ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT).
Similarly, if you are prescribed a new medication by your doctor, for whatever the reason may be, check with them whether this could possibly affect your cords. Dryness in the throat is often brought about by certain medications.
Food: The Good And The Bad
The food you eat will also affect your voice and vocal cords in a variety of ways. Some foods can create obstacles like dryness or irritation. Others can be consumed in order to prevent illness or build our immune systems, which in turn can protect your cords from infection or disease.
Fruits, Veggies, and Whole Grains
These foods contain a variety of vitamins, including vitamins A, E, and C.
One of the major benefits that these offer your vocal cords is preventing colds and flu. This means less chance of having a sore throat as your immune system will be strengthened. Another protective benefit is that the mucus lining of your throat is kept healthy – which in turn avoids irritation and strain whilst singing.
Vitamin E especially is a great anti-oxidant which aids in a healthy body and also helps to prevent certain illnesses and chronic diseases.
Honey is not only sweet and tasty, but it also has many beneficial properties.
One of them is that honey is analgesic, which means that it has the ability to relieve pain. It also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Bacteria does not survive very well in honey, which is great news for singers!
Not only can you have some honey to soothe a sore throat and prevent possible vocal cord damage, but it will also help to keep the bacteria away from your vocal cords by lining your throat on the way down.
Eating dairy foods generally leads to the creation of more phlegm, which will more than likely make you feel that you have to clear your throat. As mentioned earlier, this is like a slap to your cords and must either be done in a very soft manner or not at all, with you opting for a sip of water instead.
Spicy and Salty
The risk with eating spicy food is that it can cause heartburn and also an irritation to your throat and vocal cords through acid reflux. Once again, an irritated or tickled throat generally leads to the urge of clearing it. In extreme cases, reflux can lead to throat sores and disease.
Very salty foods tend to dehydrate our bodies and in turn our vocal cords, which means a throat that loses its lubrication and will take more strain.
To Drink or Not To Drink
Naturally, even the liquids we consume can affect our vocal cords.
Not only does it keep our vocal cords well-oiled and lubricated, but it also prevents dehydration, making it essential water for a healthy voice. During singing, our cords vibrate rapidly and if they were to be dry, it could lead to irritation and a sore throat whilst singing.
Some singers even recommend having a glass of warm or lukewarm water close by before and during a performance to help keep the vocal cords warm and soothed.
Herbal, liquorice and peppermint tea, and decaffeinated hot drinks – especially with added honey – are all great for your throat!
In addition, the heat of the caffeine free drinks helps your cords to stay warm and happy!
Alcohol and Caffeine
Similar to salty foods, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks cause our bodies to lose water and creates a dry throat and vocal cords. Alcohol also has a tendency to irritate the mucous lining of the throat.
Moist vocal cords are a must, especially for frequent singers, and alcohol and caffeine, unfortunately, have the opposite effect.
Also, keep in mind that having milk in your coffee can exacerbate the problem. Not only will the caffeine lead to a dry and unlubricated throat, but the dairy will create more mucus.
Acidic fruit juices can also lead to acid reflux and is good to avoid if you can.
Do Your Warm-Ups!
Always remember to do your warm ups! Just like any athlete, it is an essential habit to create.
Apart from ensuring a better response from your cords, you actively reduce the risk of vocal cord damage and help to protect them for your singing future.
Some singers even wear scarves as often as they can to keep their neck and throat area warm.
Also, do not put any ice in your drinks after your warm up session, as your cords need to stay relaxed and warmed up.
Steer Clear of Smoke
Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke as far as possible. This is yet another irritant to your throat and cords and can also lead to damaged vocal cords tissue and related cancers. Cancer of the vocal cords is seen in smokers a lot more frequently.
Dr. Steven Zeitels, director of the Voice Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, performed a successful operation on Adele after her vocal cords had haemorrhaged. He says that injury to vocal cords lead to bleeding and the forming of blisters or growths. This, in turn, leads to scars and stiff cords which means that, as he simply puts it, “You cannot sing.”
He also says that contributing factors are skipping warm ups and singing whilst ill or exhausted. In these cases, singers are not doing anything wrong in terms of technique, but causing damage because their voices are under added pressure.
Interestingly, he adds that there is fundamentally no more risk whether you are singing a rock song or a strong soulful ballad…in fact, most of his patients are opera singers!
The bottom line is that you need to actively look after your one unique voice. There is no replacement for it and it needs to stay in tip-top shape so that you can keep the world dangling on your singing lips!
About the Author: Julie Adams
I am a mom, a music lover and teacher from Tampa, FL. After completing a Bachelor of Music in Performance Arts, I traveled for several years before returning home where I started offering private piano and singing lessons as extra income. I met my husband in 2009 and 2 years later moved to Dallas where we settled down and I started focusing on vocal training to aspiring singers and performance artists of all age groups. I still enjoy playing the piano very much, and in my spare time you will catch doing some horse riding, drawing, doing some light reading, or just spending quality time with my family.