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Singers with Colds – Making it Tolerable

Singers with Colds – Making it Tolerable
Here are some products that stand out from the medicating crowd – according to Dr Tom Harris.

In our last session with Dr Harris, we discussed the things you should and shouldn’t do when you’ve got a cold.

Dr Harris is a retired ENT surgeon and one of London’s most respected voice experts, and he’s got more actions you can take to make your cold tolerable and rid yourself of it quickly.

This advice isn’t just for singers! These tips will work for anyone, but since we singers depend our mucus membranes* as a crucial part of our instrument, we are more sensitive to the tiniest changes brought on by colds.

Do you remember our discussion about mucus from the last session? Here is a reminder: Your job is to keep it moving. Get it out of your body.

Salty water

Spraying or rinsing the nasal passages with saline solution (salty water) relieves nasal congestion. Saline solution works as well as any decongestant**, according to Dr Harris.


You can make your own saline solution at home. A level teaspoon of salt in about a pint (roughly 500ml) of water is all you need

The decongestants that you buy in the pharmacy make your already dry membranes dry out more. “A decongestant may make you feel clearer in the short term, but it isn’t doing you any good,” says Harris.

He says they create a re-bound effect, which means when you stop using them you feel even more blocked. They can actually be addictive if used for more than 2-3 days.

You can make your own saline solution at home. A level teaspoon of salt in about a pint (roughly 500 ml) of water is all you need (it’s best to use distilled water or tap water that has been boiled then cooled).

Then you can sniff handfuls of it into your nostrils (this is a messier than using a store-bought spray bottle).

Dr Harris recommends any singer who is travelling by plane to sniff a saline spray – even if you don’t have a cold – all the way through your flight.

“Then you won’t be fried to a crisp when you get off the plane for your performance.”

“The sinus rinse or nasal douche, such as Emcur, feels a bit like drowning, but I have nothing against it, if you can tolerate it.” Dr Harris likes the saline spray called Sterimar the best.

Another thing you can do with salt water, is gargle it. It doesn’t touch your vocal cords, but it can stop the build-up of infectious agents that are hanging around on your tonsils if you happen to have a sore throat from tonsillitis.

Just like steam, saline solution is a physical treatment which not only makes the inside of your nose feel good, but it moistens the mucus membranes and helps your body get mucus out.

Vitamin C doesn’t cure a cold, but it stops it from getting worse

Vitamin C

Vitamin C doesn’t cure a cold, but it stops it from getting worse. The body uses vitamin C to rebuild cell structure, among other things.

You can take at least 1 mg of effervescent vitamin C per day.

Echinacea and Zinc

Echinacea and Zinc can be taken as pills to help boost the immune system, but there is not a lot of conclusive evidence that they work.

“They may make a marginal difference,” says Harris, “and I have no particular axe to grind with products like these.”

Linctus, demulcents and lozenges

Linctus, demulcents and lozenges may be ok for singers to take, with a few provisos.

Dr Harris warns singers that before taking any of these, you must make sure they do not contain antihistamines***, cough suppressants**** or decongestants. Steer clear if they promise to cure your cold – that is false advertising.


Demulcents, e.g. honey, help the mucus membrane to restore its proper function

The products that can actually help you will contain ingredients called demulcents that put a soothing coating on the mucus membrane in your mouth, which not only feels nice, but also helps the mucus membrane to restore its proper function. Examples of demulcents are pectin, honey, propylene glycol and glycerine.

Flu shot

Even if you are young and healthy, Dr Harris recommends that singers get the flu immunization each year.

It doesn’t protect you against cold viruses, but it can greatly reduce the likelihood of you having to cancel rehearsals or gigs due to flu-related illness.

Singers who travel and spend time in dry environments such as planes, hotels and conference centers are particularly vulnerable to germs and viruses, since they are walking around with dried out mucus membranes.

Steer Clear of ‘Miracle Cures’

Many products make false promises, claiming to be miracle cures for colds. “Certain throat pastilles containing Myrrh and other aromatics are advertised as having properties that are little short of miraculous,” says Harris, “without any scientific backing.”

‘Miracle cures’ ... can encourage singers to ignore the signs of vocal fatigue or vocal cord damage

This angers ENTs like Dr Harris, because it can encourage singers to ignore the signs of vocal fatigue or vocal cord damage.

Final Reminder

Singers, don’t forget to sleep!

Your body needs rest to repair itself and stay healthy.

After reading this two-part series, you now know how to take your mucus membranes to the spa by breathing in steam, spraying or rinsing your nostrils with salty water and drinking lots of water. You can further soothe your mucus membranes with demulcents such as honey, and you can bolster your immune system with Vitamin C and other harmless-and-possibly-helpful herbal remedies such as echinacea.

These remedies will ensure that you reduce adverse effects of the cold virus on your voice, while getting over it as quickly as possible.

By Kathy Alexander with Dr Tom Harris

Dr Tom Harris Bio

Consultant ENT Surgeon at The Blackheath Hospital, London and recently retired from the NHS. Dr Harris opened one of the first Multidisciplinary Voice Clinics in Britain at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford in 1982. Until recently, he ran the Sidcup and University Hospital Lewisham Voice Clinics with Sara Harris, (Speech Therapist) Jacob Lieberman (Osteopath and Psychotherapist) and Dinah Harris (Voice Coach).

He was the Founding Chairman of The Voice Research Society, the predecessor of The British Voice Association, of which he has also been President. He is the principal editor and contributor to The Voice Clinic Handbook.

* Mucus membranes are the surface lining of your mouth, nostrils and throat. The mucus membrane also covers your vocal folds – it does most of the vibrating when you sing. Mucus membranes serve an important function in your body’s defence against germs.

** Examples of medicines containing decongestants are Otrivin, Sudafed and Benylin. Decongestant medicines can come in the form of pills, sprays and drops. You know it is a decongestant if the ingredients include any one of the following: oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, xylometazoline or pseudoephedrine.

*** Examples of medicines containing antihistamines are Reactine, Dimetapp Cold and Allergy, Benadryl Allergy, Nytol, Claritin, Vicks NyQuil, Alka-Seltzer Plus Night Time Cold Medicine. Antihistamines come in the form of pills, gels, lotions and nasal sprays. You know it is an antihistamine, if the ingredients include any of the following: diphenhydramine, chlorphenamine, loratadine or cetirizine.

**** Examples of medicines containing cough suppressants are Pulmo Bailly, Buxley’s Mixture Cough Suppressant, Benylin DM, Vicks Dayquil Cough. Cough suppressants can come in the form of pills or liquid. You know it is a cough suppressant it the ingredients contain antitussives such as: codeine, dextromethorphan or noscapine.

Kathy Alexander is a writer, singer, vocal coach and choir director. She has appeared in Vision TV’s Let’s Sing Again, The Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and the Victoria International Jazz Festival (main stage). You can see more of Kathy’s work here.

  • Marie Ball

    I am really prone to a dry cough and have spent weeks this winter trying not to cough. I have reflux but take meds for it. I am a singing and piano teacher so use my voice a lot and I sing myself. The cough always follows a day or two of ‘prickly throat’. I had surgery for a vocal polyp a year and a half ago following episodes of migraine sickness and coughs and now my voice is terrible every time I get this cough. It is fine the rest of the time. Am I right in trying not to cough? Really desperate for some advice on this as apparently my technique is ‘really good’ according to the speech therapist and I was signed off.