How to Take Care of Your Vocal Cords (and Sing like a Diva!)

Vocal cords are delicate and easily strained if they are not well taken care of. Discover tips to take care of your vocal cords in this article.

Lady in a white shirt singing in the bathroom

COVID-19 has profoundly impacted our lifestyles. Singing with a large group of friends at a karaoke lounge may not be possible anytime soon. Still, nothing’s stopping aspiring divas or those who just enjoy emptying their lungs in the showers from singing their favourite songs, all in the comfort of their homes. At work or play, we use our vocal cords all the time.

What Causes Vocal Cord Injury?

Sick women suffering from sore throat on grey background
Irritants to the vocal cords include infection, allergies, smoke, and GERD.

Your vocal cords are the most primitive yet irreplaceable mode of communication. Within our voice box, two vocal cords – vocal folds or voice reeds – regulate the pitches of sounds that we generate. 

Crisp and clear sound comes from the synchronous vibrations generated by the controlled expulsion of air through the vocal cords. However, these are soft and delicate tissues prone to damage if not taken care of properly. 

When vocal cords are overused, apart from dryness, inflammation can occur. When they are inflamed, the voice generated will not sound as intended but rather raspy or hoarse. That is because the strained cords no longer vibrate in synchrony, and in some cases, leak air through to generate another wheezing sound. 

Old age also naturally thins out the vocal cords, resulting in raspier sounds. An allergy or upper respiratory tract infection, such as a cold, can also cause inflammation in them, significantly changing the pitch of voice as the person speaks. 

Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), commonly known as heartburn, is a condition where corrosive acid from the stomach makes its way back to the oesophagus. If the acid travels far enough, it can also damage the vocal cords. 

In the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, Eu Yan Sang TCM Physician Zhang Rui Fen explained that vocal cord disorders are classified into external and internal injuries. External factors refer to pathogenic factors such as wind, fire, cold, and dryness. Internal injuries refer to the disruptions to the 5 organ systems – the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, or kidney.

What Can You Do to Protect Your Vocal Cords?

Honey with honeycomb and wooden spoon
Honey has powerful soothing effects on your voice and vocal cords.

Keeping your voice strong is important, not only for singers and actors. We only get one set of vocal cords, so it’s crucial to preserve and protect them. You can do these simple tips to keep your pipes healthy.

1. Listen to yourself and always stay hydrated 

Constant swallowing of saliva keeps the vocal cords moist and hydrated. Therefore, prolonged singing sessions, especially when there are no breaks in between, can cause the vocal cords to dry up quickly.

Without hydration, the vocal fold membranes do not vibrate at expected frequencies to generate the pitch of the sound we intend to, and our voices start to sound hoarse or raspy.

On the other hand, make sure you drink enough water when drinking alcoholic beverages to avoid dehydration.

2. Don’t force it 

Vocal cords become inflamed when they are overused, infected, or in an allergy. Inflamed vocal cords do not have lasting consequences and usually go away by themselves. But if we are straining our voices when the vocal cords are already inflamed, long-lasting damage such as vocal cord rupture can occur.

Ruptured vocal cords take longer to heal and maybe permanently damaged. Hence, it is important to keep any inflammation under control or prevent it altogether. People who are running the flu, cold or suffering from a vocal cord infection should seek proper medical treatment. People with an allergy should also take their medications regularly.

According to Physician Zhang, herbs such asohiopogon tuber (mai dong, 麦冬), figwort root (xuan shen, 玄参), lily bulb (bai he, 百合) and liquorice (gan cao, 甘草) soothes and nourishes the throat; and herbs like monk fruit (luo han guo, 罗汉果), mint (bo he, 薄荷), honeysuckle (jin yin hua, 金银花) and platycodon (jie geng, 桔梗) can help to prevent inflammation in the throat and are often used in herbal concoctions and teas.

3. Maintain a healthy diet 

Avoid greasy and spicy foods or beverages with excessive caffeine, sugar, or acidic content. Eat at a moderate pace and chew properly so that the stomach doesn’t need to secrete more acid to finish the job for you. On top of these precautions, a cup of chamomile tea or adding a slice of raw ginger to your hot beverage will not only calm your mood, but also your stomach. 

For healthy individuals, honey has anti-inflammatory properties and are a good supplement to add to a diet. In addition, honey has anti-bacterial benefits and contains numerous micronutrients absent in sugar, making it an ideal sweetener for any beverage.

4. Get relief for acid reflux 

Beyond medical treatment, lifestyle changes also get to play a major role in keeping GERD at bay. Avoid heavy exercises after meals and always consume food at least two hours before sleep. Sleep with taller pillows or at an inclined angle to avoid gastric acid travelling upwards.

5. Quit smoking for good 

Both Western and TCM perspectives suggest avoiding smoking and excessive drinking. Tobacco, nicotine, and the chemicals you inhale while smoking can create inflammation and swelling, eventually leading to cancer of the mouth, nose, throat, and lungs. 

White fungus (bai mu er, 白木耳) is rich in polysaccharides. Its slight crunchy texture pairs well with Chinese snow pears (xue li, 雪梨) that contain lung nourishing properties. When prepared as a refreshing dessert soup, these two ingredients serve well to lubricate the hardworking vocal cords. 

Losing our voices is frustrating, especially if you love singing. Exercise regularly for a healthy cardiovascular and immune system. Drop bad habits such as smoking and excessive drinking. Hydrate adequately and indulge in foods that are known to be friendly to your vocal cords. They will thank you and serve you well in your lifetime.

References

  1. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. 2021. How cold, flu, and allergy symptoms can hurt your voice. [Accessed 10 September 2021] 
  2. Ping Ming Health. 2021. Snow fungus and lung immune function. [Accessed 10 September 2021] 
  3. Mayo Clinic. 2020. Honey. [Accessed 10 September 2021] 
  4. Mayo Clinic. 2020. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). [Accessed 10 September 2021] 

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