Imagine: A child comes home from cheering for their favorite team at a high school game, and their voice sounds raspy. The next day when they wake up, their voice is gone completely and they can barely speak at all. Sound familiar? Maybe a similar occurrence has happened to you, except it was when you woke up with a bad head cold. This is something we commonly hear people refer to as “losing my voice.” What people think of as “losing their voice” can range from a hoarse, raspy voice to no voice at all. Have you ever wondered what exactly happens to our body to cause this to happen?
When we speak, air comes up from our lungs, which then passes through our vocal folds, or vocal cords, causing them to vibrate. Our vocal folds’ job in producing our voice is to vibrate together in order to make the sound we use to speak, similar to how the quick vibrations of the strings of a guitar create music. Think about if the strings on a guitar were too loose or pulled to tight, or if the guitar wasn’t properly tuned… The quality of the music would not sound quite right. Similarly, when our vocal folds become irritated or inflamed, they are no longer able to move and vibrate properly, and as a result, our voice may sound raspy, strained, harsh, or even breathy.
What are some things that may irritate our vocal cords and cause us to lose our voice?
- Vocal misuse: Using your voice too much or too loudly over extended periods of time. A few examples of this may be cheerleading, enthusiastically cheering on your favorite sports team, grunting or yelling plays to your football team, loudly arguing with your friends, prolonged singing at choir or theater practice, energetically belting out your favorite radio or karaoke song lyrics, yelling to (or at) your children from another room, and projecting your voice to speak to a family member losing their hearing.
- Vocally demanding careers such as a teacher, coach, minister, auctioneer, newscaster, sports announcer, attorney, singer, etc. where you depend on your voice to make a living.
- Seasonal allergies, common colds, or upper respiratory infections (bronchitis, laryngitis, sinusitis, etc.) that cause sinus drainage, excessive throat clearing and/or coughing.
- Vocal nodules and vocal polyps: Growths on the vocal cords, causing them to not vibrate as easily. Continuing to irritate already damaged vocal folds may lead to this if left untreated.
- Smoking, which can dry and irritate your throat.
What can you do if you are losing or have already lost your voice?
- Vocal rest: Do not force or push your voice and DO NOT WHISPER! This is a common reaction people have to losing their voice, but this can actually cause more strain and trauma to your vocal cords in the long run. Know that a period of rest is better than permanent damage.
- Stay hydrated: When your vocal cords are protected and lubricated, the tissue is less likely to be damaged. It is suggested that you drink plenty of water and avoid dehydrating beverages, such as alcohol or caffeine.
- Use a humidifier, especially if the air is cold and dry, or take a hot shower to create steam. This can help add moisture to your vocal folds when you are breathing.
- Use cough suppressants, such as cough drops (as advised by your doctor) if coughing is leading to vocal hoarseness. This will also moisten your throat by stimulating salivation.
- Avoid loud environments such as concerts or crowded restaurants that may cause you to raise your voice or put greater effort into talking than usual in order to be heard over background noise.
- Surgery if there are nodules or polyps on the vocal folds that require removal.
- Stop or limit smoking, if vocal problems have been determined to result from it.
Many people are susceptible to losing their voice and developing trauma to their vocal folds at some point in their lives. It is important to take care of your voice and practice good vocal hygiene as a measure of prevention. If changes in vocal quality persist longer than two weeks, it is suggested that you schedule a visit with your primary care doctor or ENT.