To Gargle or Not To Gargle for Vocal Health

by Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. on January 20, 2012

I was reading a blog last week that was touting the advantages of gargling to flush mucous from the vocal folds to get the best voice.  I’m thinking, wait a minute, doesn’t this writer know that gargling does nothing for the vocal folds but possibly hurt them?  Let me explain.

The vocal folds are two folds of muscle and ligament in our throats.  They produce the sound waves that we shape into speech, but that’s not their most important role.  Their primary job is to keep us alive by blocking foreign matter, everything from our own saliva to Big Macs, and keeping it out of our lungs.  To my knowledge, all mammals have vocal folds for that exact purpose (please leave a comment if you know of any mammals who don’t).  Humans are simply smart enough to use them for speech (click here to see a video of the folds opening and closing—not for the squeamish :-))

If you look at the cut-away of the body above, you’ll see the important position of the vocal folds (see Larynx in graphic). They are positioned right at the split where the esophagus (tube closest to the spine), branches off to go to the stomach, and the trachea goes to the lungs. When we swallow, the vocal folds, which work as a valve, close to keep whatever we’re swallowing out of our lungs. If it gets too close to the vocal folds, we cough and say something like, Boy, that went down the wrong way! because it literally did.

Now let’s get back to gargling. If the substance we are gargling got as far as the vocal folds we would definitely know it because of the violent coughing we’d experience. The gargle would trip our cough reflex immediately. Thus you can see why gargling doesn’t have any effect on the vocal folds. At most it rinses the back of the mouth. At worst it dries out the vocal folds, which can be harmful. If you need to soothe your throat, pop a cough lozenge or drink a warm liquid.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Harrison January 21, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Dr. Utterback,

With all due respect, I will say you are half-right. If the substance we are gargling did reach the vocal folds, it would indeed trigger the cough reflex.

However – and it is not my intent to be adversarial – but you are misinformed. The diagram in your blog post fails to identify the epiglottis, which is located at the base of the tongue, well above the vocal folds. It is not the vocal folds, but the epiglottis, normally in the ‘up’ or open position, which when closed, prevents solid food and liquid from entering the trachea by directing it instead to the esophagus. The primary, only job of the vocal folds is producing speech.

I direct you to this page from the website of the University of Maryland Medical Center:

http://www.umm.edu/imagepages/19595.htm

Additional images:

http://www.airwaycam.com/laryngeal-anatomy.html

Again, with all due, respect, I cannot imagine where you might have read that the purpose of the vocal folds – in all mammals – is to keep food from entering the windpipe and lungs.

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. January 22, 2012 at 11:57 am

Mike,

Thanks for your comment. You have stepped into a decades-old debate about the role of the epiglottis. My position is based on sources such as The Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vocal-cord-paralysis/DS00670 which states: “That’s because the vocal cords…do more than just produce sound. They also protect your airway by preventing food, drink and even your saliva from entering your windpipe (trachea) and causing you to choke.”

I know that with vocal fold paralysis there is a danger of aspiration and this can be in a person whose epiglottis is working normally. Therefore, my position has always been that the epiglottis assists the vocal folds in protecting the lungs. But there are many, as you found with your Adams Inc. reference, who will state that the epiglottis is the primary player. This debate was going on decades ago when I studied speech pathology, and it’s still going on today. This is one of the reasons I left out the reference to the epiglottis in this blog post since the focus of the post was vocal health.

I must thank you for finding one error in my post. My request to readers should have been to tell me about mammals who do not possess vocal folds. As I read it now it does seem to say I want to know what mammals have vocal folds to protect their lungs. Your comment sent me researching this, and I found that “More than 5000 species of mammals share a basic larynx design http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pcbi.1000897 Obviously, because of the varying of anatomy of mammals and the different placement of these vocal folds, they do not always assist in preventing aspiration, but it’s fascinating to me that the basic laryngeal design is found in so many species of mammals.

Amy January 17, 2013 at 12:31 pm

You are correct, Dr. Utterback. Speech is a secondary function of the vocal folds. Before man used them for speech purposes, they were only used as a protective mechanism.

While I’m only a graduate clinician right now, I can attest that I’m working with one of the best in the field of speech pathology this semester. That was the first lesson he taught me. :-)

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. January 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Thanks for your comment, Amy. You must be at the Voice Clinic of the Un. of Memphis. I’m from Memphis and have two degrees from the Dept. of Communication.

G. Jones August 2, 2013 at 4:29 pm

My father has systemic scleroderma that has severely lessened the function of his vocal folds. He gets choked very easily because of this. This would seem to substantiate the role of these folds.

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. August 2, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Scleroderma is a tough disease to have. It is unrelenting in its attack on the body. So sad to hear of your dad’s vocal fold problem. I wish him the best.

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