Vocal Hygiene: keeping your larynx healthy

Brush. Rinse. Repeat. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

We have all grown up participating in daily rituals each and every day, so often that we don’t really have to think about them anymore. These hygienic routines have become so embedded in our everyday lives as ingrained habits, and we (and others!), notice when we haven’t been engaging in such routines (hello stinky breath on a long flight overseas!).

But washing our body and clothes, and brushing our hair and teeth aren’t the only hygienic habits to keep on our perpetual “to do” list. There is one more important thing to think about, and it involves moving 3 inches south of the dental border…to our larynx!

Our larynx – commonly referred to as our voicebox – sits at the front of our neck. In men, the larynx comes to a prominent point known as the “Adam’s Apple”. If one were to peer inside the larynx, one would find sitting rather innocently, the vocal folds – tiny muscles responsible for making noise, sound, and speech.

Although we spend a lot of our time and energy focusing on larger muscles (I’m talking to you, biceps!), the vocal folds also deserve our devoted love and attention. These tiny muscles do so much work for us each and every day – sometimes we even ask them to work overtime. But without our vocal folds, we wouldn’t be able to speak to our loved ones, friends, and colleagues; sing our favourite songs; coo to our babies; or even let out our infectious, resounding belly laughs. Hip hip, hooray for our vocal folds!

BUT – what if we take these little muscles for granted so much so, that they begin to become dehydrated, calloused, or fatigued?

Enter: vocal hygiene. Adding vocal hygiene to your daily habitual regimen can prevent vocal mis-use or abuse, helping to stave off vocal challenges. Adopting a few good habits can even prevent you from acquiring a voice disorder.

Here are some of the routines you’ll want to start incorporating into your daily life, starting right after brushing your teeth…

1) Drink water, water…and more water.
WHY? 8 cups of water every day will keep your vocal folds hydrated from the inside out, ensuring that the muscle tissue has adequate lubrication to move freely. Hydration also ensures that excess mucous build-up doesn’t occur.
TIPS: Avoid dehydrating drinks such as alcohol or caffeine, both of which can also cause acid reflux. Instead, give hydration an extra boost by adding moisture to the air in your home with a humidifier.

2)  Pay attention to your vocal volume.
WHY? Yelling, screaming, shouting outdoors, and speaking loudly over background noise can be extremely physically exhausting for your vocal folds, causing excess strain and tension. Continuous strong voicing can lead to irritation, inflammation, and swelling of the vocal folds.
TIPS: If you need to project your voice loudly, think about alternative solutions such as moving closer to your conversation partner (think ‘face-to-face’ communication); using amplification if you need to speak to a large audience (e.g., a microphone); or finding nonverbal ways to communicate (e.g., wave your arms, clap your hands, or flicker lights!). Also, avoid whispering. Instead, use your full voice but turn down the vocal volume really low.

3)  Use a comfortable vocal pitch.
WHY? Speaking too high or too low can cause vocal strain and might even be a symptom of an underlying vocal problem.
TIPS: Try not to ‘manufacture’ a habitual speaking pitch that isn’t comfortable or natural. Instead, use your most comfortable pitch (speaking tone). A speech-language pathologist can help you find your optimal pitch if this is a challenge.

4)  Avoid excessive talking.
WHY? Every muscle needs a break every now and then! Imagine going to the gym and working the same muscle every day, all day… ouch!
TIPS: If your job requires you to speak constantly, or, if you simply have the gift of the gab, think about taking periodic moments of vocal rest. Try texting or e-mailing instead of talking on the phone after a long day of using your voice.

5)  Avoid irritants.
WHY? Avoiding or reducing smoking can prevent dehydration and general irritation. Additionally, throat-clearing and coughing are abusive vocal behaviours that ‘slam’ the vocal folds together harshly, which can lead to the formation of nodules (think ‘callus-like’ lesions) on the vocal folds.
TIPS: Instead of throat-clearing, take a sip of water, swallow hard, and try out a gentle hum.

Well there you have it. A lifestyle involving vocal hygiene that will keep your voice shining, just like your pearly whites!

Samantha Berardesca is a registered speech-language pathologist at SpeakAble Speech and Language Therapy in Toronto, ON. She is also a Singing Voice Specialist with a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance and a Masters in Music and Music Education.