Whether you're a professional singer, speaker, or teacher, or you just cheer too loudly at ball games, voice overuse can make you hoarse. It's painful, annoying, and can even cause permanent vocal cord damage if not treated properly.
"It is possible for someone to permanently damage their voice if they do not seek help for a sore throat or overuse of their voice," says Steven E. Davis, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist based in Los Angeles. According to Davis, infection or cold can also cause a sore throat or laryngitis. In fact, sore throats have innumerable causes, including bacteria, viruses, allergies, postnasal drip, and even acid reflux.
Whatever the cause of your pain, it is important to rest the voice. In some cases, just one episode of yelling can damage vocal cords.
"This kind of injury is likely to be a kind of small blood blister that forms on the vocal cords," says Davis. "Long-term voice misuse can cause nodules to form. The voice box has many small and delicate muscles attached to it, and they can be strained and injured just like any other muscle in the body." In this case, Davis recommends a kind of "physical therapy" for the voice, provided by a speech therapist specializing in the professional voice.
Simple Ways to Save Your Voice
Davis says that for any type of sore throat, there are also some at-home throat soothers you can try before visiting a doctor. "I'm a big believer in a minimalist approach at first," he says.
- First and foremost, take preventive measures, such as washing your hands, to prevent infection.
- Treat allergies or acid reflux if these are the causes.
- For an acute sore throat, gargle with salt water.
- If your throat hurts for a day or two, followed by a "head cold," and then sinus congestion, the nose is a likely location of an infection. This can be addressed with a saline rinse, such as that used with a neti pot.
- Stay hydrated. "If you're sick, your body's metabolic rate goes up and you use a lot more water, so it's important to stay well hydrated," says Davis. He recommends rehydrating with sports drinks. "Water is less helpful than sports drinks when you're sick because it doesn't replace sugars and salt that your body
is also losing."
- Try steam or humidifiers with menthol or eucalyptus essential oil.
- Rest the voice-but don't whisper! "Whispering creates more of a strain on the voice and should be avoided," says Davis. "A speech therapist can give you exercises and instructions on how to use your voice in a more gentle way."
Herbal Throat Soothers and Gargles
In 2007, the FDA declared that over-the-counter cough remedies are not only ineffective for children but are also dangerous. Here are some herbal alternatives that can do wonders for both children and adults, according to naturopathic doctor Mary Bove, ND, who practices at the Brattleboro Naturopathic Clinic in Brattleboro, Vt.
- Figs: Figs contain mucilage that coats the throat. "I would recommend simmering figs and drinking the warm liquid, and eating fruits warm," says Bove. "Try adding cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg to the liquid for additional antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects."
- Slippery Elm: Slippery elm also contains mucilage and can be found in specially formulated teas, sprays, and lozenges. Add honey for an added antibacterial effect. The root can be steeped in water to make a tea by adding 1 teaspoon per cup of water and covering overnight.
- Marshmallow: The natural root of the marshmallow contains mucilage that can coat the throat to ease pain. Prepare as you would slippery elm.
- Pineapple juice: Pineapple juice contains the anti-inflammatory enzyme bromelain.
- Apple cider vinegar: Dilute the vinegar in water with honey.
- Goldenseal tea: Follow package instructions for making the tea and then let cool before gargling with it. Strong sage tea, cooled, also works great as a gargle for sore throats.
- White oak bark, myrrh, and peppermint: "This blend helps with red inflamed vocal cords or swollen tonsils," says Bove.
- Water with lemon and a dash of cayenne pepper: The capsaicin in cayenne pepper temporarily acts on pain receptors to decrease pain. Salt can be added to any gargle and has an antibacterial effect. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to a cup of what you are gargling.