During cold and flu season, I’ve had many students interrupt their singing by coughing, clearing and pointing at their throats, saying, “Oh, sorry, phlegm.”
And my response is usually, “Hey, phlegm happens. And please try not to clear your throat.”
For years, I have wanted to create a sticker for my studio that says:
PHLEGM HAPPENS (AND IT’S SNOT FUNNY)
Mezzoid Voice Studio LLC
So I did.
(Someone said, “Don’t look now, but someone has sneezed on your logo.”)
But as Kyle Broflovski says,
and that is that what we might be calling phlegm might actually be mucus. And vice versa.
I feel like I should have known this before. I did know that your body produces 1-1.5 liters of mucus per day. I know this because there was an ad in some magazine about 20 years ago for an allergy medicine showing two people dancing in a field, and it said something like this (this is not the actual picture – just what was available in Canva):
We need mucus to function. It’s like engine oil. It lubricates and filters everything. It’s thin, it’s clear, it’s stringy, and it comes from the nose, sinuses, and the lining of the throat. You have mucus membranes throughout your body. Mucus is the body’s flypaper.
If you are experiencing THICK mucus, that’s probably the result of dryness, which is very common in the winter months or in dry climates. If you take medications that dry you out, it will dry you out EVERYWHERE (see mucus membranes throughout your body). That will result in thick mucus and cords that feel like you used sandpaper on them.
Thick mucus is often mistaken for phlegm. Phlegm comes from the lower airways, the lungs and lower respiratory tract. If you have phlegm, the consistency of which is also thick and gloppy (like thickened mucus), it indicates that there is some kind of inflammation or infection in your body. Phlegm generally moves upward, which is why you cough it out. (Hopefully, with an artfully placed kleenex or handkerchief to catch it, especially if you are in my presence). You have mucus in places other than your nose and throat, but you don’t have phlegm in your stomach. Unless you’ve swallowed it.
As my husband, the ER doc says, “All phlegm is mucus, but not all mucus is phlegm. It [phlegm] is specific to the laryngeal and oropharyngeal regions [i.e., throat and where your throat meets your mouth].”
The terms are used interchangeably, even by health professionals. Whether or not you have thick mucus or phlegm, it’s still going to get in your way if you have to sing. So what can you do to relieve that gloppy feeling in your throat? If you are feeling phlegmacious (my word) or phlegmular (my former student Jennifer Leevan’s interpretation)?
You have several options:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Both internally (water) and externally (humidifier). These are things that should be part of your daily health care routine anyway.
- Guaifenesin, the active ingredient in Robitussin, is great for thinning mucus, if you can handle it. It is also sold generically.
- If you have allergies, consider an antihistamine or decongestants – again, remember that if you are drying up your nose, you are drying up every other mucus membrane in your body, therefore losing that lubrication your vocal folds require to function efficiently.
- Spicy food! Eat some Thai food and watch everything open up!
- Nasal spray or rinse or neti pot. You can check out my tutorial on how to use nasal spray HERE.
And as I review that last link, I see that I wrote it on February 3, the Feast of St. Blaise, patron saint of throat maladies. And again, I’m writing today’s post on his feast day, which seems appropriate. I wrote the last one in 2020, and was marveling at how healthy I’d remained through cold and flu season and was hoping that I wasn’t jinxing anything by the post. Who knew Covid was right around the corner to shut everything down?
In a nutshell,
Mucus is snot.
Phlegm is… not.
Generally, if mucus is working the way it’s supposed to, you’re not even aware of it. Much like everything else in your body. Or even vocal technique, for that matter. It’s only when things go awry that you become aware of it.
Oh, and if you’d like to know why you shouldn’t cough to clear your throat, check out this video of four singers being scoped while they sing. They are asked to cough at the beginning of the video, and you can see just how forceful coughing is on the vocal folds (come for the coughing, stay for the lovely singing):
(By the way, I will be giving out those stickers to my current students in the next few weeks. )