Save your most valuable work asset: Your vocal cords

Dr. Childs examining a patient with vocal fatigue
Dr. Childs examining a patient with vocal fatigue

Listen up teachers, call center employees, ministers – anyone who depends on their voice to make a living: You need to give this work tool extra care and attention.

If you think voice care is only for singers, you’re wrong. A good portion of my patients are professional voice users in non-musical careers such as those listed above.

Don’t take your voice for granted. Know how to take care of it and what trouble signs to look out for.

Hoarse? Signs your voice may be in trouble

Our vocal cords vibrate over a hundred times per second when we speak and even faster when we sing. That vibration can produce heat and friction, which can cause tissue damage if we overuse, misuse, or abuse our voices.

One of the most common complaints we address is hoarseness. Hoarseness can be caused by extended periods of using your voice or by other sources of inflammation such as infection, acid exposure or allergic responses. It can lead to a raspy, breathy voice or vocal weakness, with the level of voice change dependent on the level of tissue damage.

We also see a lot of professional voice users who have vocal fatigue, which is often caused by overusing the voice. Teachers especially tell us, “Monday and Tuesday I do pretty well, but by Friday my voice is gone. I recover over the weekend, and then the cycle starts again Monday.”

When should you visit a laryngologist (or vocal cord specialist)?

  • If you are hoarse for two weeks or more.
  • If you have vocal fatigue – you’re losing your voice by the end of the day.
  • If you have throat pain or discomfort when using your voice.

3 tips to care for your voice

I tell my patients that to keep their vocal cords healthy, they should follow these three simple steps:

  1. Stay hydrated
  2. Pace yourself
  3. Rest your voice when you are under the weather

I can’t stress hydration enough. Water thins the mucus that then lubricates and protects your vocal cords while they vibrate. We recommend you drink 64 ounces of water each day. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can dehydrate you, so avoid them or drink in moderation. Smoking and medications for congestion also can dry out your vocal cords.

Vocal pacing and vocal rest are also key to a healthy voice – one rule of thumb our voice therapy team recommends is: for every 90 minutes of voice use, you need 10 minutes of voice rest. Imagine that you have $1 worth of voice to use each day. If you spend 80 cents of it at a rehearsal or at work, that means you only have 20 cents left for the rest of the day. Build that time into your voice budget to avoid hoarseness, raspiness, and vocal fatigue.

We have a few suggestions to help with vocal pacing and rest that work especially well with teachers:

  • Use a personal amplification device, such as a microphone, so you don’t have to project your voice all day.
  • If you have to give the same 5-minutes of announcements at the beginning or end of each period or shift, record it once and use that time to give your voice a break.
  • Use a noisemaker to get the kids’ attention or to start a meeting instead of using your voice.

If you’re sick and your voice is hoarse, don’t try to push through. Let your voice rest to avoid permanent damage.

You may not be a professional singer, but your livelihood and quality of life depend on your voice. Take care of it. If you are experiencing vocal problems, schedule an appointment with a laryngologist or call 214-645-8300.

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