Coughing and Sneezing and Aches, Oh My!

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Coughing and Sneezing and Aches, Oh My!

Taking care of your voice during the cold and flu season


“It’s that time of the year again...”

A large number of clients that I see for voice therapy at my clinic are suffering from voice loss, vocal tension, tension in the muscles of the neck and throat, chronic throat clearing, difficulties swallowing, persistent hoarseness or fatigue of the voice- and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When first meeting these clients, we often discover together that the origin of their voice concerns was a cold, flu, pneumonia, or other respiratory tract infection that resulted in these clients having to adapt poor vocal habits to meet their daily needs. Even after the infection had been treated, these new habits often didn’t go away and led to chronic abuse and damage to the voice.

The unpredictable winter weather combined with the fast-paced professional environments in Toronto make the coming months an optimal incubator for bacteria and viruses. The first line of defense for your voice during this “flu season” is to be proactive and take measures to protect your body and voice from infection.

Here I have assembled some important considerations for managing your vocal health so you can be sure your voice is there for that important business meeting and that annual caroling tradition.

1.       Sleep Hygiene Matters- Are you getting enough sleep each night? There is not an agreed upon amount of nightly sleep to aim for, but you know your body. If you’re waking up tired and groggy- you need to get to sleep earlier. When you sleep, your body re-calibrates and attempts to restore itself to a healthy equilibrium. Without enough sleep, your body doesn’t have enough time to heal and it remains in an unbalanced state. To add insult to injury, we are more likely to assume bad habits (skip meals and workouts, drink excessive caffeine or energy drinks, feel stressed by the small stuff, etc.) when we are tired. In an unbalanced state, our body is more susceptible to attack by bacteria and viruses because, like you feel, it is not in an optimal condition to work efficiently. Don’t ignore your body- make time for sleep.

2.       Hydration is key- hydration is about more than just your water intake. It is about your environment and also the balance of water and electrolytes in your body. I always say to my clients: Moderate and Compensate. There is no reason to torture yourself or make yourself feel uncomfortable. If you are going to take cold medicine that dries out the mucus membranes that keep your throat and voice safe, be sure to moderate its use and compensate by drinking a little extra water throughout the day. Too much humidity isn’t good for the body, so moderate the use of humidifiers to compensate for the dry heat that warms our homes in the winter. If you have the cold or flu, your immune system is cycling through energy at a higher rate, so make sure you moderate your pure water consumption and compensate for expeditious energy loss by supplementing your fluid intake with electrolytes.

3.       Limit Coughing and Throat Clearing- Colds and flu often result in an accumulation of mucus and post-nasal drip. When they thicken and drip above or into our airway, we get a sensation of needing to cough or something being “stuck” in the throat. The force of contracting these muscles around the throat and voice to clear this fluid can result in excess tension and damage to the vocal folds, which can impact the voice dramatically. The first line of defense is to avoid contracting a virus. Once the immune system is fighting off infection and generating mucus, you can do a few things to combat the need to cough or throat clear. Drinking water keeps the mucus thin and allows it to be cleared more easily so it doesn’t “stick around.” The sensation of a hard swallow can often mimic the sensation of muscles during a throat clear or cough, but without any excess tightness or hard contact of the vocal folds. Steaming and nasal rinsing (eg. Neti Pot) provides a nice alternative to menthol lozenges that only act to dry out the protective mucus membranes in the throat and on the vocal folds.

4.       Practice Excellent Hand Hygiene- This one probably goes without saying, but be sure to practice consistent hand hygiene. If you have to cough or sneeze, use your sleeve or a tissue rather than your bare hand or skin (that's where infections love to live). Keep your workspace clean and be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer throughout the day. This will ensure your system stays healthy and avoids contraction of infections.

5.       Warm-up the Voice- Vocal warm-ups are not just for singing- they're for speaking too! If you are healthy and use your voice throughout the day, “warming up” the voice only encourages stamina and safety for your voice. If you are sick, your voice is often not functioning with enough breath or resonance to prevent it from having to overwork. Even though you are working with a system that is functioning at less than 100%, it is still possible to train it to work within its limitations to promote healthy vocal production. Vocal warm-ups for speech when you are sick should be targeted at establishing relaxed breathing patterns, gentle voice production (perhaps using more air than usual) and the sensation of vibration from the voice near the front of the face (in the area surrounding the nose and mouth).

If you would like more information or tips on managing your vocal health this holiday season, contact us to come speak with our voice therapist who is a registered speech-language pathologist. Now is the time to be proactive about your vocal health. Find out how we can work with you to make sure that your voice survives the winter.