Don’t Let Coughing Sabotage Your Voice

by Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. on January 20, 2015

With colds and flu at their peak this month, here is some important information to keep your voice healthy.

My guess is that if you’re like most people you don’t pay much attention to how often you cough or clear your throat when you’re sick.  But as a broadcaster or voice artist you should pay extra attention to that because you may be harming the part of your body you must have working well to be able to do your job:  your voice.  What you may not realize is that each cough creates enormous pressure in your throat and can cause significant damage. Let me explain….

The vocal fold (cords) are really very small folds of muscle and ligament that protrude out into the throat. If you’re not squeamish, take a look at vocal folds at work by clicking Vocal Folds They work as a valving system with the primary purpose of keeping foreign matter out of our lungs. (The fact that they allow us to talk is secondary.)  You know how it feels when something “goes down the wrong way.” That’s when the vocal folds do their work to protect the lungs. They close off the tube to the lungs and make us cough up whatever was on the wrong path.

Coughing can serve a life-saving function, but it takes a toll on our vocal folds in the process. The air of a cough passes through our throat at over 100 m.p.h. Imagine the damage a 100 m.p.h. wind does to a tree. Now think of the small vocal folds with that strong blast of air coming through them several times an hour. Throat clearing is just as harmful.

So think about your throat next time you are coughing.  Try to use throat lozenges and warm drinks to soothe your throat and prevent coughing.  Your voice and your throat will benefit.

Read much more about how to combat a cold in my recent post, “Don’t Get Sick as a Dog This Winter.”

Want to know more about taking care of your voice?  Ck out the new, fifth edition of BROADCAST VOICE HANDBOOK. You’ll learn about vocal health and lots more!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Moe Rock January 22, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Wow! That is interesting. My ENT told me to cough rather than clear my throat. Guess I need a new ENT. 😉

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. January 23, 2015 at 5:50 pm

That might be good advice depending how you were clearing your throat. If it was quite forceful, a slight cough might be better. I wouldn’t ditch the doc yet!

Daniel Riley May 25, 2016 at 12:14 pm

I had a really, really bad cold some years back. Along with it, due to the drainage (I presume), I had a coughing fit that was so bad I’d even cough in my sleep… and it lasted for a few days. (It was perpetuated by a trip via a plane.) Anyway, there was one time (toward the end) that I coughed and I actually felt my throat “change.” The only way I can explain it is that it was as though my voicebox “shifted.” After that point, I wasn’t able to speak for about 2 weeks properly, but I didn’t want to speak to give my throat a chance to heal. After about a month or so, I was going to start ramping-up getting my voice stronger and stronger, back to the way it was. I sang first tenor, and I sang in the bel canto style; lyrical, but with a lot of power when needed. I had an amazing amount of control over my voice; it was really a joy to sing. Since that coughing fit I have not been able to get my voice to anywhere close to what it was… which is really sad, in that I really liked to sing. I had studied music, voice, and opera, with the notion of getting into that field. That door is pretty much closed permanently now. Do you have ANY advice for someone such as myself? I’ve been terrified to go to the doctor, due to what they’d tell me and/or the costs potentially involved. (It’s an absolute shame what a stupid cold can due to someone’s life!) I am – at present – in my mid-40s, if that matters.

Juliette May 27, 2016 at 5:02 am

If you have been coughing a lot for a few years. Is it possible to reverse the damage if you start taking better care of your throat. I am 19 and have had post nasal drip since I was in primary school. I have only just figured out what causes it and am taking better care (allergies). I have encountered no damage that I am aware of thus far.

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. May 29, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Daniel, I definitely think you should see a good ear, nose, and throat doctor. If for no other reason just to find out what happened. I’ve heard of severe coughing lowering someone’s pitch, but that’s due to damage to the actual vocal folds. Yours is a new problem for me. If you see a doctor, please post a comment and let me know what the doctor says. Good luck! Ann Utterback

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. May 29, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Juliette, I’m sad hearing that you had post nasal drip for so many years. Sorry no doctor could help you. Since you had the coughing for so many years, I expect it has affected your vocal folds. The only way to find out will be to see a good ear, nose, and throat doctor and find out if you have any damage to your vocal folds.
Good luck!
Ann Utterback

Diane December 4, 2016 at 1:12 am

After a recent upper respiratory, with heavy coughing, it’s as if I have another little voice when exhaling. It makes constant noises and if anyone were to hear it they would think I was possessed! I don’t know what to do to get it stopped as it is causing much sleep deprivation! Will it correct by itself???

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. December 6, 2016 at 5:06 pm

Diane, you have asked a tough question. I’m not an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and that’s who could more accurately answer this question. I suggest you make an appointment and let the doctor assess what’s going on.
Sorry I can’t help.
Ann U.

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