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My Voice Has ‘Deserted’ Me…

Doctor's Corner with Anthony Jahn
Hello Dr. Jahn:

I’ve just moved to the desert and my singing voice is not the same. I’m assuming that my allergies are responsible for my constant mucus. When I hit a high note, it sounds awful. Furthermore, my left ear is always clogged up. Various remedies such as honey, water, neti pot etc. do not seem to work –and I have a gig next week. Help!

– Eve

Dear Eve:

You’re most likely dealing with an overly dry climate.

The vocal folds work best if the larynx is hydrated, both internally (the deeper tissues), and on the surface.

When the vocal folds vibrate, especially at higher frequencies, there needs to be a thin layer of fluid covering them.

In effect, the contact between the two vocal folds is this cushion of thin fluid.

You can compare it to ice skating: the reason your skates glide easilty on ice is because the blades slide on a thin layer of water which is generated by heat which is generated by the weight of the skater.

The actual sliding (or vocalizing) takes place on a fluid-covered surface;
If the fluid is not there then, in the case of the vocal folds, the voice sounds thin and rough.

Trying to produce your normal sound only leads to excessive squeezing and further rubbing together of two dry vocal fold edges.

Sooo – you need to hydrate! Drinking water is helpful, especially if it’s hot outside, and even more so if you exercise.

I would suggest at least 60 ounces, spread over the course of the day.

Keep your nose hydrated as well, with frequent sprays of saline.

This is one situation where a small squeeze bottle of saline used frequently is actually more useful than a Neti pot.

If you can obtain a saline nasal gel (marketed in the US under the brand name NaSal) this is even better, since the gel adheres to the nasal lining and keeps it moist longer.

Once your nose is wet, please remember to breathe through your nose (rather than you mouth) as much as you can; this humidifies the inhaled air, and reduces laryngeal dryness.

Another issue may be allergies. The flora indigenous to deserts is usually not very allergenic, but we have imported a lot of non-indigenous plants to these areas (this is certainly true in areas of the US like Arizona), and with these plants come allergies.

The dry desert wind carries pollen more easily and for greater distances.

Once the pollen is inhaled into a respiratory tract which is dry (i.e. under hydrated), it is more easily carried down to the larynx and the bronchial tubes.

So allergies are also a consideration- the dilemma here is, should you take a drying antihistamine to combat this?

Look either to non-drying medications like Singulair (a leukotriene inhibitor, not an antihistamine), or natural anti-allergy remedies such as stinging nettle tea or capsules.

Longer term allergy relief may be aided by eating local honey, which gently exposes your body to pollen- sort of like taking anti-allergy shots!

And finally, what is the elevation of this desert? Singing at higher altitudes actually adds to the misery, because the air is thinner, and makes it more difficult to support the voice.

The body does get used to this thinner air over time, but initially you definitely need to use more muscle effort to get the voice out.

– Anthony F. Jahn, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)

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Dr. Jahn welcomes your questions.

This discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice that you should obtain from your own physician.

  • Fantastic article with a lot of great advice.

    I've personally experienced some of these issues, but not due to a dry climate, in fact the opposite. I don't necessarily have allergies in the conventional sense, but have noticed challenges to my range due to a few factors. While in the Mid West, a common problem with staying hydrated is the heater cranked up during the winter. Investing in a room humidifier is a must. During the summer, altho humidity levels can get unearthly high, the pollen in the air coupled with excessive sweating DUE to that humidity requires one to stay constantly hydrated. Water, water, water – it's a wondrous cure-all

    The only thing I'd like to add to the above article is a note regarding hydration. While it's also important to hydrate during before, during, and after performance… keep in mind that it takes at least 20 minutes for the body to absorb the intake of fluids. So you're not necessarily “good to go” as soon as you start drinking water. Allow the body the ample time it needs to absorb the fluid. I don't even start my warm ups until I know I'm hydrated.

  • A great herbal remedy to clear your voice is Agrimony Tea. It helps with sore throats and clears your voice.

  • Mary,
    I'm aware of Agrimony Tea, and enjoy it from time to time. My only concern about using it for the purposes of the voice is that it acts as a diuretic. It definitely helps with sore throats, no question about that – but probably should not be consumed on a regular basis as it will have the same mucus fighting properties that caffeine does… and “good” mucus is our friend ;-)

  • Oh Eve,

    I feel for ya’…this happened to me a few months back when I was gigging in Sedona, AZ. Wow, what a beautiful place, but being a soggy Florida boy…I dried up quick…nose bleeds daily, same allergic feelings going on. The Doc is right…lots of water, no alcohol, and the saline spray does help a bit. I also got into the habit of carrying chap stick…sounds gross, but stick it up your nose and move it around to coat your inner nasal passage…this kept my nose lubed up and stopped the bleeds. Nothing quite as unattractive as singing a soft ballad with blood streaming down the face…yep that happened to me – yuck!

    I wish you well my friend,