One of the disadvantages of being a singer as opposed to an instrumentalist is that if you get sick, you can’t perform. If a pianist has a really bad cold, she might not feel up to playing, but if she really had to, she could pull it off. If you, as a singer, have a really bad cold, you have to deal with your vocal folds possibly being swollen and not coming together, causing you to sound breathy or hoarse or not even being able to phonate at all. In November 1998, I had to cancel several weeks of lessons and gigs because I was completely voice-free. And if you do sing on these swollen folds, you risk causing long-term vocal damage.
And some medicines, while making you feel better, don’t really help you sing better. Decongestants and antihistamines don’t just dry up your nose – they dry up ALL you mucous membranes, including your folds. And aspirin and ibuprofen are great anti-inflammatories, but according to Dr. Anthony Jahn, otolaryngologist at Columbia University:
Aspirin should be avoided if you are prone to gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) … acid reflux can irritate the pharynx and vocal folds, causing sore throat and hoarseness. What about vocal fold hemorrhage? Aspirin can cause this in singers who are predisposed.
[Since writing this, aspirin has been listed as a medication that can put singers at serious risk of vocal fold hemorrhage, due to its anti-coagulant properties. When in doubt, don’t take it.)
In addition, if you take codeine for a cough, Dr. Jahn says:
[t]he three significant side effects of codeine are drowsiness, constipation, and habituation. Of these, constipation may be harmful, as straining on the toilet forces the vocal folds together, and may result in trauma, even hemorrhage.
— The New York Opera Newsletter, May 1998
Best not to get sick at all! A book that has some great ideas for staying healthy is 77 Ways to Beat Colds and Flu by Charles B. Inlander & Cynthia K. Moran (Bantam Books, 1996). This book goes over understanding colds and flu, gives you tips on prevention, and if you get it anyway, tips on treating it so that you can minimize your discomfort level.
- WASH YOUR HANDS!
- HUMIDIFY YOUR SURROUNDINGS. “Adequate moisture is essential for the proper functioning of mucous membranes, which are the front doors of your upper respiratory system.” Which, in turn, in an essential part of what we use to sing. This means that you need to keep the room outside you moist as well as the room inside you – humidifiers externally, drink water and use nasal saline/Neti Pot internally.
- FLU SHOT. Some people never get them and never get sick; some people get them and still get sick. According to the book, they enjoy a 75% success rate. [UPDATE: This is a subject of some controversy these days; some sources say 70-90%, others question its overall effectiveness. Your decision.]
- EAT HEALTHY AND GET ENOUGH SLEEP. When I am stretched too thin, that’s when I’m bound to get sick. It used to be that I could hold out until the end of the season, but as I get older, I haven’t been as lucky.
There is so much more. I find this book a very positive approach to avoiding illness and just improving your life in general.
And another great quote that I’ve been meaning to pass on to you – and this involves habit.
Regarding throat clearing:
When you have a cold, mucus increases and gets thicker, settling on the vocal cords. This causes a reflex action of coughing or clearing the throat. For the short duration of a cold, no real harm can be done. But if the “ahem” routine becomes a habit, you can damage your voice.
Vocal cords are muscles. Each time you clear your throat, you literally bang those muscles together – and they can become inflamed or develop small calluses that can cause temporary, or sometimes even permanent, hoarseness. [Bolding added.]
It’s important for any chronic throat-clearer to make a concerted effort to break the habit. The best way is to drink lots of water, which will thin the secretions. Then, each time you feel the need to clear your throat, swallow instead. That way, you’ll stop straining the cords – and save your voice.