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.