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Singing When Sick

The show can still go on – but don’t make singing when ill a habit -says Dr. Jahn

Dear Doctor Jahn,

When I have a bad cough and sore throat, I know I shouldn’t sing, but what if I have a gig I can’t get out of? What can I do to minimize harm to my voice?


Dear Steve,

While there are many potential causes for a sore throat and another bunch of causes for a cough; when the two occur together, you most likely have an infection.

The ideal treatment of rest, hydration and not singing may not be an option if you have an important gig.

So here are some things you can do to minimize harming yourself.

Let me preface this by saying that you should not make performing with an infection a habit: you need to give your body the chance to fight that infection and recover, whenever possible.

You need to do three things: treat the infection, minimize the symptoms, and adjust the parameters of your performance, all with the idea of lessening the impact of the additional strain on your body.

Dealing with the infection: if you have a bacterial infection, manifested by a red and swollen throat, tender neck glands, a cough productive of colored sputum- take antibiotics.

Remember to stop alcohol while you are on antibiotics.

Additionally, start Vitamin C, 1000 mg four times a day.

Increase your water intake, to loosen the phlegm and make your cough more effective.

Other herbal-type remedies, such as garlic, can be added at your discretion.

To address your symptoms, take medications to relieve the pain and fever.

Aspirin and ibuprofen are better than acetaminophen, provided there are no contraindications (such as a history of bleeding or stomach ulcers).

Relieve the sore throat by gargling with warm salt water, or drinking hot ginger tea. You can even keep a mug of this beside you on stage – audiences are used to performers sipping between songs.

You should take a cough suppressant only when needed, keeping in mind that these are often a bit drying, and also that, apart from when you’re singing or sleeping, that cough may not be bad thing: it clears your chest of infection.

Next – adjust your set to reflect the temporary impairment of your condition.

If you have the option of shortening the set, taking out songs that are especially demanding, tweaking the sound system, or adding more instrumental bits – anything to reduce the amount of high-strain singing – that would be great.

Finally, once your gig is over, take a break!

Your immune system is working hard to get you better, and you should not sabotage that effort by pretending that everything is fine.

Dr. Jahn

Dr. Jahn welcomes your questions. You can send these to editor@voicecouncil.com

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

You can see more of Dr. Jahn’s work here.

  • Petra Raspel

    May I ask why you recommend aspirin? Combined with heavy voice use, it has been known to increase the risk of vocal fold hemorrhage, even in people without a history of bleeding. Most professional singers I know don’t take it for exactly that reason, so I’m quite surprised. I am not a health professional of course, so I would be interested if there is any new research to suggest that this is outdated.

  • Al Andrew

    I am shocked that a dr would recommend singing when sick ?
    I totaly hear you taht this should not be a habit !
    The risk is too much !
    What is the Dr’s take on Sage Tea ?

    Very intresting article !

  • Leontine

    Dear Al,

    Dr Jahn is NOT recommending to sing when sick. He is referring to those times when a professional singer is in a situation where ‘the show must go on’. This is not an ideal situation but one which every professional singer will find themselves in several times over the course of their career.As a vocal coach, I teach many west end singers who find themselves in this predicament. If they are a swing, and the lead roles are ill and other swings (singers who cover several roles) are ill they have no choice. So this is simply making the best of a bad situation.There are times of course, when the vocal folds are so badly swollen that singing is absolutely impossible. That is a different matter again.
    Best wishes,

    Leontine Hass

  • Afjahn

    Dear Petra.

    I agree that, if there is a history of bleeding, aspirin should be avoided. My point was that, while acetaminophen is a pretty good analgesic, aspirin aand other NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti inflammatories) also treat the inflammation. I am not aware that in patients with no history of bleeding, vocal fold hemmorhage, ulcers, etc., a normal dose of aspirin is harmful.

    Dr. Jahn

  • Qflat

    Throat Coat  tea…with a bag of Breathe easy is the way to go.

  • Matt C

    If you do it for a living you will have to sing when you’re sick otherwise you’ll be sick and homeless.

  • Suzy

    I am on heavy steroids and antibiotics for sinuses that are full all the time.  All around my vocal cords is swollen.  I have to sing 2 more nights this year and then to another state to sing all winter.  My ENT does not want me to sing…..no other option.  Will be looking into your vocal coaching soon.

  • Leslie

    Tincture of Benzoine is a trick I was taught when you NEED to sing when sick. Take an old metal pan and fill with water and add a few drops of the  benzoine, bring to a boil and then take a towel and stand over the pot breathing in the vapours. Be careful–not too close as it will be too hot and be careful! The benzoine vapours act like an exporant. It make take a few tries, so a few minutes every hour and all the junk in the sinuses and lungs and bronchial airways will flush out.
    This is a very old remedy that I was told the Met singers used to keep singing when they were sick. Keep up the hydration and vitamin C and rest.
    It may take several pharmacies to find it. The actual tincture full strength is also used to coat canker sores. The pain disappears after you apply, but will sting a little when you first apply.

  • Sfernando

    sound advice it seeems

  • Alexander

    When you heal your throat please make your feet very warm, you can even put some dry mustard inside your socks. You may think it is stupid,
    but it works.

  • tankthompson

    I’m a huge fan of Throat Coat tea…I’m not a huge fan of the taste, but the results are very nice.

  • some person

    I see what you did there!

  • auscatrina

    Bit concerned about recommending asprin due to possible capillary damage or haemorrhaging in the vocal folds. I thought paracetamol was supposed to be preferable. Let me know what you think.

  • Freya Astrella

    It would be interesting to find out how possible this is. I have heard of this too, but not sure how likely it is. Perhaps reducing swelling in the pharynx outweighs the risk of vocal fold injury?

  • Freya Astrella

    Interesing! I’ve never heard of this before. WebMD says this: “Benzoin is also used to help relieve and soothe minor irritation of the nose, throat, and airways (e.g., laryngitis, croup) when it is mixed with hot water and the steam is inhaled.” Every day is a school day!

  • Freya Astrella

    I guess it depends how sick you are and how important the gig is. I have often performed with a cold, even the onset of laryngitis!!