Three Throat Threats: How to not wreck your voice this cold and flu season
We are coming to that time of year again when colds and flu start to plug up all the passages of communication in the human body, namely the ears, nose and throat. Depending on where you live, the weather may be getting dryer or wetter. In Canada, of course, it’s certainly getting colder which creates one of the greatest challenges for your vocal apparatus. Not just because of the possibility for contracting a virus that will irritate the throat creating soreness, swelling and phlegm, but because the physical environment is in opposition to ideal conditions for the vocal apparatus. Temperature, Moisture and Tension all contribute to vocal challenges with regard to the time of year and the environment. So if you don’t actually want to take a bunch of sick days and groan and growl at your loved ones for weeks on end this winter, keep these things in mind and you might even escape the annual bug altogether, or at least dampen its harmful effects. For alliteration sake I’m calling it TMT: The three throat threats.
Assuming the majority of human evolution occurred in Africa, human bodies would naturally seem to function best in warm, moist environments. It therefore stands to reason that the organs of speech would function best in the same environment, and they do. The colder temperatures of Fall and Winter can be a shock to our throats as we start breathing in air 20-40 degrees colder than at the height of summer. The first defence our throats have against the cold is the nose. By breathing through the nose in colder environments you will be warming and filtering the air through the hairs and soft tissue of the nose on its way to the more delicate tissues of the throat and lungs. However, activities such as speaking and high-intensity exercise will require that we breath more through the mouth which does not have the same filters as the nose. This is why it’s good to wear scarves in winter and balaclavas in extreme cold to limit the exposure our throats have to the elements. Exercise that may be good for our bodies can be bad for the throat and sometimes lead to more susceptibility to colds if not done with care.
Keep your voice hydrated. Drink water. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you’ve probably heard this before. IN fact you’ve heard it so much you might start to doubt if it’s true. But if you use your voice in any way as a part of your work and daily life, you will notice the effects of a dry throat fairly quickly. This can lead to further and more severe vocal problems if you don’t change your habits at least a little bit, especially for singers and actors. Most of the general population seems to be under-hydrated so it’s probably a good idea for you to increase your intake anyway. I’m no saint when it comes to hydration myself. I never count glasses of water and I drink coffee on most mornings (except days when I have an audition, then I switch to green tea with honey). But at this time of year, when the air is often dry and cold, I do fill up the ol’ water bottle a little more often just to keep things fluid.
This is probably the most important and least understood aspect of vocal health. Tension can arise as a result of psychological stress or habitual physical strain as a result of modern lifestyle habits or in response to environmental conditions. This is of increasing importance this time of year (colder weather, loss of daylight, mid-terms etc.) when new stressors pile up without much relief on the horizon. Stiff or clenched muscles in any part of your body that don’t get released can lead to recurring problems such as back pain, stiff joints and lockjaw (TMJ). The voice is also adversely affected by continual tension in muscles directly and indirectly associated with speech. Muscles in the neck, shoulders and jaw are common areas of tension during times of stress. These problems tend to be more pronounced in cold weather when our body wants curl up and contract to keep these vulnerable areas warm. Although you may not feel the tiny muscles that move your vocal folds as they work, any unnecessary tension in the muscles surrounding them can lead to a raw throat and a tight voice. Prolonged contraction in the delicate throat muscles can cause strain and damage to the soft tissue of the vocal tract, causing you to lose your voice more frequently. Relief from this kind of stress is not always as easy as performing a few external stretches or putting on an Enya mix, though it could help. Who knows? Intentional relaxation of your inner throat requires a bit more mindfulness and interoception to really get at the root of the problem. But there's lots of good advice out there to help you find techniques that work for you.
The good news is that you can start anytime in any environment by taking a moment to check in with your breath. Note any feelings of restriction in your body as the air naturally flows in and out of your body. Ask yourself how much of the tension is actually necessary in this moment. When you can locate the places of tension from the inside you can start to let it drop away. You may notice a pleasant sensation of weight in your jaw, larynx, collarbones, and shoulder blades. Keep letting the breath flow in and out while it draws tension away from your throat. Then start to gently check in with the state of your voice by humming a little bit into your head. You don’t need tension in your throat to make sound. In fact you sound better without it. Even though you have to suffer through a cold and dry Canadian winter for 6 months a year, you don’t have to make your voice pay for it.
Other environmental factors to watch out for this time of year are: Pollution, House parties or clubs with loud music, sudden changes from cold to hot when going in and out of buildings, and of course the annual cold or flu virus going around.
Even if you are mindful of all these things, you might still catch a cold. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it wreck your voice. If you do feel like you’re starting to come down with something, here’s my own little home remedy for irritated or phlegmy throats:
Ginger Lemon Thyme and Honey Tea (GLTH)
1 Chunk Ginger (about the size of your thumb) sliced
2 T. Raw Honey (or more for taste)
1-2 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
1 Wedge Lemon (optional)
Boil Ginger in 3-4 cups of water for 5-10 mins. Add Honey and Thyme. Pour in a go-mug or thermos and drink slowly throughout the day.
Or you can try any one of these other home remedies.
And of course get plenty of rest. Stay healthy, happy and hydrated. Take care of yourself!