Flu season is a real threat to your vocal cords. Viruses and colds leave singers with mucus on their vocal folds. No one wants to get on stage sounding phlegmy, but clearing your vocal cords isn’t as simple as coughing or clearing your throat.
If your vocal cords aren’t clear, your vocal range and tone suffer. It’s not just colds and flu that clog up singers’ vocal cords – your lifestyle and technique are important too. Don’t be fooled into thinking clearing your throat will clear your vocal cords.
Feeling the need to constantly clear your throat is your body’s way of telling you that your vocal cords are struggling. With viruses everywhere, now’s the best time to strengthen and immunise your vocal cords.
How to clear your vocal cords for singing
How to tell if your vocal cords need clearing
- It can be hard to spot the warning signs that your vocal cords are struggling. These are the tell-tale indications to look out for:
- You’re pushing harder than usual to reach notes
- Your voice feels tired or weak
- Your vocals aren’t as controlled
- You’re coughing
- You feel the need to clear your throat
- Your voice sounds phlegmy and congested
What causes mucus on the vocal cords?
Excess mucus on your vocal cords is often caused by illness or infection. When you’re ill, you can suffer from postnasal drip (when mucus from your nose moves into your throat.) This causes a build-up of moisture on your vocal folds and irritates them.
You don’t necessarily have to be ill to have too much mucus on your vocal cords. Allergies can also cause the same problem. If your singing voice still sounds normal and you don’t feel any pain while you sing, allergies are likely to be the cause.
Poor nutrition and an unhealthy lifestyle can also irritate your vocal cords. Smoking, eating the wrong foods, and not singing with a good technique can dry out your mucus membranes. This then makes them produce extra mucus to try and protect your vocal cords from the irritation.
How do you clear mucus from vocal cords?
Your vocal cords need mucus to vibrate properly, but too much mucus can be a real problem. Your voice can sound stuffy even when you don’t have a cold. These are some good methods for keeping mucus in check:
- Keep moisture in the air – set up a humidifier at home or at work to keep moisture in the atmosphere, which will help open up your vocal cords and relieve congestion.
- Stretch out your voice – if your voice isn’t feeling too weak, try extending your vocal warm–up. Run through some light high-to-low vocalizations to get your vocal cords vibrating and loosen the mucus.
- Hydrate with warm drinks or water – keeping your fluid intake up will help flush out phlegm and will stop the urge to clear your throat.
- Steam – inhaling steam is a great way to soothe and hydrate your vocal cords. You can use a vocal steamer, vocal nebulizer, or make your own steam bath using a bowl of hot water and towel.
Mucus on vocal cords remedy
A great natural remedy to shift mucus from your vocal cords is gargling with salt. Salt can be harsh on your voice box, so you need to be careful what salt solution you use.
A singer-approved salt gargle remedy is:
- warm water – 1 cup
- sea salt – ½ teaspoon
- baking soda – ½ teaspoon
- honey – ½ teaspoon
The extra ingredients help make the solution less abrasive.
Combine the ingredients and gargle gently. After you spit out the water, leave it 5 minutes or so before you rinse out your mouth. This will give the solution time to settle in your throat and provide relief.
How to clear phlegm when you have a cold
Flus and viruses are your vocal cords’ worst nightmare. When you’re ill, post-nasal drip irritates your vocal cords by overloading them with mucus. A phlegmy voice is the last thing you want when you perform, so try these methods of prevention:
- Zinc tablets – taking zinc supplements will help boost your immune system so you can recover quicker, without any negative side effects on your voice.
- Boost your vitamin C intake – taking supplements or eating plenty of Vitamin C rich foods (like broccoli, strawberries, and orange juice) is known to reduce the duration of a cold, as well as reduce symptoms like phlegm.
- Eat high water content foods – soups and broths are a great way to make sure your vocal cords stay hydrated and can get back to functioning normally quicker.
- Take Bromelain tablets – a lot of decongestants can dry out your vocal cords, but Bromelain tablets are a great alternative. They’re a natural supplement made from the enzymes found in pineapples and are used to reduce swelling in the sinuses.
- Use Eucalyptus oil – you can add eucalyptus oil to your humidifier to help ease your congested airways. This is only recommended if you’re not planning to sing for a few days, as it can have an abrasive effect on your voice if you go straight into a performance.
How to take care of your vocal cords for singing
You shouldn’t need to clear your vocal cords if you follow a healthy singer’s lifestyle. Taking care of your vocal cords is all about prevention; if you practice good vocal health in everyday life, you can prevent your vocal cords from ever becoming damaged in the first place.
- Do vocal warm–up exercises everyday
- Drink plenty of water
- Schedule vocal rest time
- Sing from your diaphragm
- Use a humidifier
- Cool down with light vocalizing
- Avoid caffeine and dairy before singing
- Relax your throat muscles when you sing
How do you know if your vocal cords are damaged?
A mucus build-up on your vocal cords isn’t usually anything to worry about, as it can be remedied quickly and easily. But if you’re constantly needing to clear your throat, something more serious could be going on.
The 3 warning signs that your vocal cords may be damaged are:
- Prolonged hoarseness for 2 weeks
- Pain or discomfort when you speak/sing
- Unexplained voice changes
If you experience these symptoms, it’s best to consult your doctor to be on the safe side. Your vocal cords may not be damaged, but they might be strained or infected and catching it early can prevent it from becoming more serious.
How are singer’s vocal cords different?
On the surface, a singer’s vocal cords won’t be all that different from a person who doesn’t sing. Vocalists aren’t born with different vocal cords that magically give them their singing ability – it’s how they train and strengthen their vocal cords that set them apart.
Vocal cords are strips of mucous membrane in your voice box. They can vary in length from person to person and this can play a role in how your voice sounds and your range, but this only has a small impact on your singing ability.
Muscle coordination and breath control will make a real difference to the performance of your vocal cords. Professional singers train and strengthen the muscles in their larynx and core to support their breath control. They do this by incorporating exercises for singers in their daily routines.
How do you strengthen your vocal cords?
Breathing exercises are a great way to strengthen your vocal cords. Having good breath control is a real support system to your voice box and will open up your range and endurance. Diaphragmatic breathing (breathing from your diaphragm) is one of the best ways to strengthen your vocal cords.
To practice this, sit down with your upper body relaxed, with one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage. Breathe in through your nose so that your stomach expands and pushes against your hand, then exhale through pursed lips.
The aim is to try to tense and tighten your stomach muscles and use them to expel your breath.
If you perform the diaphragmatic breathing correctly, the hand on your upper chest should stay completely still while you breathe in and out. It can feel tiring at first but repeating the exercise a couple of times a day for 5-10 minutes will strengthen your diaphragm, your vocal cords, and your voice.
Vocal cord warm–up
Running through vocal warm-ups before you sing will help keep your vocal cords healthy. Try incorporating these exercises into your warm-up to prevent strain:
- Tongue twisters –trying out tongue-twisters is a great way to start your warm-up. It will help relax the muscles in your face and jaw before you sing.
- Humming drills –this is a great warm–up for your vocal cords.Find the pitch where it feels like your voice is buzzing and vibrating in your throat, and gently hum with your lips closed.
- Diaphragm exercises –stand in a relaxed standing position, like you would when you sing. Cover one of your nostrils with one of your fingers, and inhale and exhale deeply fromyour other nostril. Do this a few times before repeating the exercise with the other nostril. Restricting your nasal breathing will help you master the technique of breathing deeply from your diaphragm.
- Lip trills– these are essential for every vocal warm– With your mouth almost closed, release air from your lips so that they vibrate and make a “brrr” sound. If your vocal cords are working well, your tone should be the most distinctive sound you pick up on during your lip trills, not the sound of your lips or air.
Is clearing your throat bad for your vocal cords?
When your chest or throat feel congested, clearing your throat is your first response. But singers should never clear their throat. It can do more harm than good and can strain your vocal cords even more.
Clearing your throat dislodges mucus from your vocal cords and may provide temporary relief, but doing it too much and too roughly can dry out your mucus membranes. This can then trigger a chain reaction where your vocal cords try to produce even more mucus to compensate.
How to clear your throat for singing
Clearing your throat can be a hard habit to break. But as a singer, you’ll have to find a healthier alternative if you don’t want to strain your vocal cords.
One method of throat–clearing that’s safe for singers is to create a suction trap in your voice box. Close your mouth while pinching your nostrils shut, and suck inwards. Force yourself to swallow while doing this to create suction in your voice box to help lift excess mucus from your vocal cords.
This technique helps decongest your vocal cords, rather than simply dislodging the mucus like you do when you clear your throat normally.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What causes a vocal cord to stop working?
Vocal cord paralysis is the name for when one or both of your vocal cords can’t move or function properly. This is caused by nerve damage to your vocal cords, which can happen as a result of extreme swelling or inflammation.
Singers shouldn’t scare themselves about the prospect of their vocal cords stopping working. Vocal cord paralysis isn’t a common injury; it’s caused by surgical trauma, neck or head trauma, and neurological diseases.
- What causes constant mucus in the throat?
Colds and viruses are the most common cause of mucus in the throat. But if your symptoms persist for over two weeks, it’s worth getting it checked out. Constant throat clearing can sometimes be an indication of LPR (when reflux from the stomach irritates the voice box) or allergies.
- Why can’t I stop clearing my throat?
If you’re constantly clearing your throat, it might be down to habit. After suffering from a cold or virus, some people develop a behavioural pattern that makes them want to keep clearing their throat even when the mucus isn’t there anymore.
Have you had issues with your vocal cords? Please share any tips or advice in the comments below.