For the most part, our bodies adapt to the bone-chilling temps we get each winter. But our vocal cords would much prefer hot and humid air.
Short of moving to the Bahamas, otolaryngologist Dr. H. Steven Sims, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said there are simple steps you can take to keep your vocal cords in shape. The vocal cord doctor helps “voice professionals” — singers like Jennifer Hudson, actors, TV and radio personalities — keep their instruments in impeccable condition.
Sims said many people don’t realize how often they use their voice in their profession.
“One of our largest groups of patients are teachers. Or, as we call them, the largest group of voice professionals who don’t know they’re voice professionals,” he said with a laugh.
Jan Potter Reed, a licensed speech therapist who works with Sims at the Chicago Institute for Voice Care, agreed that teachers often suffer from phonotrauma. “They’ve been slamming their vocal cords together too hard to talk,” Potter Reed said.
Here are five ways the average person can try to avoid vocal strain, especially in cold weather:
• Moisture is key to vocal cord health.
Potter Reed said vocal cords need to be moist to function properly, so any steps you can take to make the air you breathe a little more forgiving is a good idea. Staying hydrated will keep your entire body in better health and allow it to create more hyaluronic acid, which naturally lubricates the vocal cords.
The team suggests people use a humidifier at night because most people sleep with their mouth open. Those who want to take it a step further can purchase an ultrasonic nebulizer to release additional moisture into the air they breathe.
“The goal here is to keep warmth and humidity in the body,” Potter Reed said.
• Perfume and cologne are irritants.
Pleasant-smelling though they are, these are not helping your vocal chords, which will close to try to protect the breathing tube and keep irritants out. Any irritant will show up in how it makes the voice a little more froggy, Potter Reed said.
• Create a tropical island feel with your scarf.
Sims said a lot of the ways to protect your vocal cords are things you likely learned in kindergarten: Wash your hands often, avoid people who are coughing and wear a hat, gloves and a scarf when exposed to the elements.
“Wrapping your scarf around your mouth and nose helps you breathe in air that’s not quite as cold,” Sims said. “It retains a little humidity and is not so cold and not so dry.”
• Cut out — or, at least, cut back on — smoking.
Sims said the obvious dangers of smoking tobacco at any time of year become twofold in winter. “The people who go outside for a smoke break are exposing themselves to both the cold weather and the cigarettes when they step outside in winter,” Sims said.
• Take extra precautions when you’re traveling.
“Airplane air is dry and kind of a petri dish because they’re recycling the air. Hotel rooms are not conducive to good air, either,” Potter Reed said.
Portable humidifiers that use an upturned water bottle are a good solution for hotel rooms, she said. And well-timed breaks during travel can make a difference, she said.
If you do develop voice problems because of the cold, is it appropriate to ask your doctor to write a prescription for a two-week trip to the tropics?
“I usually tell my patients that as their doctor, I should probably go with them to supervise their care,” Sims joked.