The voice is a strong instrument, but if you’re reckless, singing can endanger your body.
Vocal cords are part of the larynx, a tube-shaped organ in your neck that acts as the body’s voice box in addition to blocking food and drink from entering your lungs through the trachea. When the cords vibrate, they control the amount of air your lungs release while you speak—they also produce the sound, or pitch, of your voice.
When you’re singing, vocal cords vibrate for longer increments of time while your lungs exert more pressure. You’re going harder, which means there’s a higher risk of damage.
What Goes Wrong
The most common (and preventable) cause of vocal cord damage is overworking your throat. Singing without warming up can make you feel raw or scratchy sooner, and persisting too far hurts your body and your pitch. Certain styles of singing—belting, screaming, anything harsh or unnatural—are more likely to strain your vocal folds. Straining to hit a note that’s out of your range—too low is just as bad as too high—can also cause damage. Other self-destructive behaviors such as smoking or excessive drinking (alcohol dries out the throat) can jeopardize your voice in addition to other parts of the body.
Alternately, a strained voice can be a symptom of another malady such as an upper respiratory (that includes the bronchial tubes, larynx, nose, throat and pharynx) infection, acid reflux, larynx cancer or even psychological trauma.
The bottom line is that if something feels or sounds wrong, then it’s probably hurt.
Effects of Strained Vocal Cords
As with the rest of the body, ignoring strained vocal cords can lead to farther damage. You’ll also sound much worse. Damaged vocal cords often restrict one’s singing range, lower the speaking voice or even cause squeaking during singing.
Because of their proximity to the ears, nose and throat, damaged or strained vocal cords can affect the surrounding organs. If only one side of your throat hurts, it’s because you’ve hurt the corresponding lymph node. Voice box pain can easily spread and infect the throat and middle ears. Of course, overexertion can also paralyze vocal cords.
Treatment and Prevention
If you feel a strain on your vocal cords, you need to take it easy for a while. Rest your voice while you can. If you have to sing, adjust any note that strains you—sing an octave lower, a third higher, whatever feels more comfortable. It’s far safer to make compromises than it is to power through and exacerbate the problem.
Avoid stressing your voice box out and keep loud noises like screaming or groaning to a minimum. Clearing your voice also abuses your vocal cords, so forgo that as well. Limiting speech can help, but whispering actually puts more pressure on your larynx, so it’s better to use your regular voice.
While you’re resting your voice, ingesting warm liquids will make your throat feel more comfortable—throat coat tea mixed with honey and lemon is a classic singer’s concoction. You can also take external measures, like wearing a scarf or sitting in a hot bath, for throat relief.
Set an appointment with a otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) if individual treatment doesn’t help or you’ve developed symptoms like a lump in your neck, difficulty swallowing or coughing up blood—these may be signs of something more serious, like growths, vocal paralysis or cancer. Your next step will differ depending on the cause of pain. Growths such as polyps or nodules have to be surgically removed, while therapy or surgery can loosen paralyzed vocal cords.
What you eat and drink also has an effect on your voice. Warm beverages help open your range, while cold water constricts your throat, making it easier to strain. Anything overly spicy or acidic can irritate the throat, while citrus and alcohol have a drying effect. Additionally, it’s important to avoid dairy before you sing. Dairy causes mucus buildup in the throat, which makes singing both sound and feel bad. That’s right, ice cream kills your voice.
You can also open up your vocal folds by alleviating any sinus issues: nasal spray, for example, can help clear a congested throat and help you access your chest voice (Nasal spray is also nice for ear infections and sore throats, if you’re prone to those).
Above all, singing should be enjoyable, not painstaking. Be kind to your vocal tract and it will reward you.
Sarra Sedghi is Paste Food’s and Paste Science’s assistant editor and has resolved to be much kinder to her vocal cords.