ENT; Prevention

Hoarse? Lost your voice? Here’s what to do

ENT; Prevention

Lesley Childs, M.D., is an Assistant Professor of Laryngology, Neurolaryngology, and Professional Voice at UT Southwestern’s Clinical Center for Voice Care.

You get home from work and your voice is raspy. The next day, you’re so hoarse you can hardly speak. By the third day, your voice is gone completely. You’re facing vocal fatigue, and you may not have even seen it coming.

Here at UT Southwestern in Dallas, I see cases of vocal fatigue in patients from many different professional backgrounds. My patients range from singers and vocal artists to teachers, preachers, lawyers, and customer service representatives. Anyone who uses their voice regularly can suffer from vocal fatigue.

Vocal fatigue is when your voice sounds and feels tired over a period of time, and it can happen to anyone. My patients describe their voices as sounding hoarse, raspy, gravely, or simply not the same as they used to be.

Hoarseness, coughing, and throat clearing are a vicious cycle that can contribute to vocal fatigue. In fact, hoarseness is one of the main reasons we see patients at the voice center at UT Southwestern. We take our voices for granted until we run into trouble.

Who can develop vocal fatigue?

You don’t have to be a professional singer to suffer from voice issues. A good portion of my patients are professional voice users with non-musical careers. Aside from singers, I have cared for attorneys, call center employees, ministers, teachers, television reporters, and auctioneers.

Anyone who spends a lot of time talking on the phone, in person, on television or radio, or at conferences can encounter vocal problems. These are people who depend upon their voices to make a living. The key to maintaining a healthy voice is to recognize the symptoms of vocal fatigue before they become too severe. 

Should I see a specialist?

If you are persistently hoarse for two weeks or more, you should visit a laryngologist to make sure there is no damage or vocal fold injuries. A laryngologist (or vocal cord specialist) can examine your vocal cords (also called vocal folds) for growths or early cancers. Think of a laryngologist as a specific type of ENT surgeon who works with people with voice disorders as well as airway and swallowing disorders.

Growths are often benign but can become a problem if left untreated. A lot of vocal fold disorders are reversible to some extent, especially if they’re treated early. 

How to treat vocal fatigue

Vocal fatigue often can be resolved with behavioral therapy alone. Our voice care team at UT Southwestern is composed of laryngologists and voice therapists. Working together we can help you recover from vocal fold damage, and our voice therapy team will teach you appropriate breathing and voice optimization techniques to avoid vocal fold damage in the future.

We view vocal cord surgery as a last resort. When surgery is necessary, it can be an emotional experience for the patient. The patient may fear that his voice will be permanently damaged, or even lost forever. However, this is simply not the case. The great majority respond beautifully to vocal cord surgery.

How to avoid vocal fatigue

I usually give my patients these four tips to avoid vocal fatigue:

  • Rest your voice when you’re sick. If you have laryngitis, a throat infection, or a cold that affects your voice, don’t try to “push through” and speak or sing. Focus on longevity and preserving your instrument for the long haul. A rest period for your voice is better than permanent damage.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking liquids helps thin the mucus of the throat. The thinner the secretions, the better the vocal cords are protected and lubricated. Your vocal cords vibrate up to several hundred times per second, and tissue damage can occur when they’re not properly lubricated. Drink pure water regularly, use a cool mist humidifier, especially in the winter when the heat is on and the air is dry and inhale steam.
  • Warm up your voice. Warming up is an absolutely crucial component of voice use, even if you’re not a singer. We are vocal athletes - you don’t run a marathon without stretching, preparing, warming up, and training. Simple humming is a nice warmup to bring the voice forward and prepare for a lengthy conversation or presentation.
  • Pace yourself. When your schedule allows, pencil in a rest break for your voice. I call this “vocal pacing.” If you know that you will be on the phone with clients most of the day or that you have a presentation to deliver, vocal pacing can help you “save your voice” for when it matters most.

Your livelihood and your quality of life depend on your voice, so it’s important to focus on vocal health. If you’ve experienced the symptoms of vocal fatigue (a hoarse or raspy voice for 2 weeks or more), it’s time to see a laryngologist. You only get one voice. Give it the very best care.

Upcoming Events

UT Southwestern has two educational voice events coming up.

  • April 16 – World Voice Day. This year’s theme is “Voice: The Original Social Media.” This free, public event will be held at 11 a.m. at Roxy Grove Hall at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
  • June 26Singers Symposium. This inaugural, daylong event at UT Southwestern will focus on various topics, including laryngeal anatomy and physiology, vocal technique, and marketing for professional artists. Registration is required by May 29, 2015. Visit our voice center website for registration details.