When we go about our daily lives, it’s easy to take some of our basic bodily functions for granted. That’s particularly true with the voice, which is why it’s so important to protect our vocal cords, especially because they are used on a daily basis.
“We rely on our voice for communication with friends, family, and acquaintances,” says Breanne Schiffer, MD, MPH, a laryngologist specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology (Head and Neck Surgery) at University of Utah Health. “We may even rely on our voice for our jobs. It’s important to protect your vocal cords because they are so important in how we interact with our world.”
Although voice disorders can happen to anyone, those who rely heavily on their voices in their daily jobs (singers, teachers, coaches, lawyers, etc.) are especially vulnerable. If you are at risk, or if you’re experiencing symptoms, follow these tips to learn more about prevention and treatment.
1. Be Aware of Signs and Symptoms
Excessive strain is a common culprit, but voice disorders can also be caused by a variety of factors, such as illness, an injury to the voice box, and medication side effects. Symptoms include changes in tone, pitch, range, quality, or loudness of the voice. Patients may also experience pain with talking, vocal fatigue, or increased effort to speak.
Different types of voice disorders include:
- Laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box from overuse, infection, or irritation)
- Presbyphonia (changes to the voice with age)
- Globus sensation (the feeling of a lump in the throat)
- Chronic throat pain (four weeks or longer duration)
- Vocal lesions (growths of polyps, cysts, and other benign lesions)
2. Practice Good Vocal Hygiene
We’ve all heard of sleep hygiene, but did you know that daily self-care regimens can be applied to our voices as well? Here are some do's and don'ts for practicing good vocal hygiene.
- Do drink plenty of water and keep your body hydrated.
- Don’t irritate your vocal cords by smoking or vaping.
- Do try to avoid harmful coughing and throat clearing.
- Don’t forget to take vocal rest breaks every day.
- Do gather closer to people to avoid shouting or over-projecting.
- Don’t eat foods that trigger gastroesophageal reflux disease.
- Do use a microphone when speaking to large groups of people.
One lifestyle change Schiffer highly recommends is quitting smoking and vaping for good. Your voice will sound clearer, and you’ll also feel healthier and more vibrant in the long run.
“It is always recommended to avoid smoking or vaping, as the inhalation of smoke may further irritate the lining of the vocal folds, which can contribute to voice changes,” Schiffer says. “Furthermore, quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.”
3. Know When to Voice Your Concerns
If you’re experiencing symptoms over the course of a month or longer, it’s time to talk to your doctor about a voice disorder evaluation. Patients are typically referred to a throat specialist called an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist, or ENT), who will assess their symptoms and use certain tests to diagnose the underlying problem. Depending on the evaluation, the otolaryngologist may refer patients to other specialists for a voice evaluation, such as a speech language pathologist or a laryngologist.
“It’s important to seek medical attention when you’re experiencing prolonged symptoms,” Schiffer says. “With treatment, patients may be able to make a significant difference in their vocal health and overall well-being.”