How cold, flu, and allergy symptoms can hurt your voice
February 1, 2021
Many athletes think it’s perfectly fine to push through injury, even if it hurts. Of course that’s not usually a smart decision. Vocal athletes are on the same playing field – if you push your voice when you have a cold, the flu, or allergy symptoms, you’re risking permanent damage to your vocal cords.
Vocal athletes are people who use their voices for more than just casual conversation. These people are teachers, call center employees, ministers, public speaking professionals, singers, and more. When you depend on your voice to make a living, it’s important to protect it from damage.
The effects of allergies, colds, and flu
So many of my patients come to me saying they were sick, but they pushed through whatever they had to do vocally. That’s when they run into trouble and end up hoarse or losing their voices entirely.
When you push your voice through a cold, your vocal cords can swell, which can lead to a condition called laryngitis. When you develop laryngitis, pushing your voice is a very bad idea. Even if you’ve committed to singing in a recital or giving a three-hour lecture, it’s best to postpone or find a substitute, or you may end up in trouble. Treatment for laryngitis includes resting your voice – using it too much can lead to long-term damage that may require surgery.
If your allergy, cold, or flu symptoms are causing you to cough and clear your throat a lot, or if you’re concerned that you’ve developed laryngitis, check with a laryngologist (a type of otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat doctor who specializes in the vocal cords and care of the voice). Throat clearing and coughing are traumatic events for your vocal cords that can cause damage if the symptoms are not resolved quickly. Your laryngologist can help to optimize your treatment and help protect your voice to avoid long-term damage.
Treating and avoiding long-term voice damage
Most of us don’t really think about our voice as a tangible thing that requires care – until we can’t use it because of illness. When you get sick and lose your voice, you may think it’s just a normal part of being sick.
Hydration is huge for voice care because water helps thin the mucus that then lubricates the vocal cords as they vibrate. The vocal cords dry out quickly. And it takes a long time to rehydrate them. The best way to keep your hydration at an optimal level is by drinking plenty of water. Not tea, not coffee, not soda – water. Drinks that contain caffeine may seem like they’re hydrating you, but they’re really drying you out more. Unfortunately, your decongestant cold medicine may contribute to dehydration of the vocal cords. Of course, we always stress the importance of nicotine cessation. Not only because of the cancers associated, but also the heat is damaging to the vocal cord tissues.
Over time, your vocal cords can develop abnormal growths, which are often considered a wear and tear injury from constant use and abuse of the voice. These lesions can continue to enlarge and make the voice worse and worse until surgical removal may be required.
Our team tries to keep people out of the operating room. But sometimes vocal cord surgery is necessary because of irreversible damage.
Before we operate, we almost always start our patients in a voice therapy program to see if the lesion will shrink and possibly even go away. Reversibility is common with vocal cord growths, but they don’t go away on their own – it requires patience and diligence by both the patient and the voice team. Sometimes we can cancel surgery, which is wonderful for everyone!
There are several ways to treat vocal cord damage. But, like all medical conditions, prevention is key. If you’re sick, don’t try to push your voice. It’s disappointing to miss a performance or have to skip a speaking event at work, but it sure beats having to go through surgery to save your voice. To schedule with a laryngologist, call 214-645-8898.
UTSW Voice Care Center
The Voice Center at UT Southwestern provides state-of-the-art care for patients with voice disorders and other conditions affecting the larynx (voice box), airways, and swallowing function. Patients include professionals who rely on their voices – singers, actors, public speakers, broadcasters, lawyers, clergy, and teachers – as well as seniors or anyone experiencing vocal problems.