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Coughing and singers – what to do!?

My personal steamer

Ok, so I have been sick with a lung infection for a week and coughing everyday – making me sad, my vocal folds sad, basically my lungs and trachea and vocal folds and throat are all bit sad at the moment.

Why is coughing so bad for singers?

Coughing, clearing your throat, sneezing, vomiting – they all irritate the vocal folds. Coughing, clearing your throat and sneezing all create a large force of air rushing past your vocal folds at a high speed and your vocal folds “clap together” or vibrate very strongly – check it out on youtube here. Coughing is vocal fold violence! Vomiting can result in stomach acid coming up the oesophagus and irritating the vocal folds leading to further irritation.

OK – a disclaimer – I am not a doctor. Check with your doctor first – especially about medications and for your individual situation.

So, how do you avoid coughing when you need to cough to get the sputum / mucous out of your chest when you are ill? These ideas have worked for my students and I:

1. You are probably going to have to cough. Just saying. I live in the real world, I hate coughing, I avoid coughing, but I do it, you do it, it happens. You need to move that mucous out go the lungs somehow. Accept it, then move on to cough reduction mode!

2. When you feel the need to cough or clear your throat have a sip of water. It can often take away the urge to cough which is important if the cough is a dry irritating one that you just need to try and stop. Also, tea with honey, or lemon and honey in boring water sipped slowly can sooth the throat and slow the cough reflex.

3. Thin the mucous. If the mucous is thinner it easier for it to cough up / be reabsorbed back into the body with minimal coughing.

  • Drinking fluids helps thin the mucous / sputum (sputum is mucous that is in your lungs).
  • Steam helps thin the mucous – steamy showers, humidifiers (keep them clean) and I love my  personal steam inhaler. A bowl filled with boiling water and a towel over the head is great too (Thanks Grandma! She used to do this for me when I was little and sick and it works a treat).
  • Medication like Bisolven tablets contain bromhexine which thins, loosens and clears mucous in the lungs. I find these help reduce coughing. (Check with your doctor!)

4. I usually don’t take decongestants or cough suppressants which dry the mucous out because we need the mucous coating on our vocal folds to function as singers, however, at night time a decongestant or cough suppressant which avoids night time post nasal drip  and that awful dry sore morning throat can be just the thing (Postnasal drip – mucous drains from the back of the nose down the throat and into the …. stomach or lungs? Whatever – it is disgusting, right?). Be aware, though, that often these can last for up to 24 hours and you will feel better, but your vocal folds might be dry dry dry and singing on them may irritate them further. Again – check with your doctor! I never sing with a decongestant in my body.

Ok, so I hope that helps to you address any coughing problems. Feel free to send me your helpful tips.

Singing and illness

I normally am pretty cheery and happy when I talk about my work, but today I am sad. After three days of a chesty cough and problems breathing (I don’t DO coughing!) I came home today from the doctor’s with a verdict of bronchitis. OK. I knew I was feeling unwell, fevers etc. But  coughing drives me NUTS! With each cough I imagine my vocal folds going redder and getting more inflamed. I have to take more time off work. This makes me sad, because I love my work. I don’t want to infect my students, and I am certainly NOT coughing through a singing lesson. Very bad form! It means I have to reschedule many many lessons and cancel others. It inconveniences me, and my students who may have auditions or performances coming up in the near future. It interrupts our learning. Many times students come to lessons unwell and in no condition for a lesson. Sometimes they are exhausted from performance schedules / work / studies / exams. Sometimes they are sick, recovering from being sick or on the cusp of being sick. Unfortunately infectious diseases are infectious and airborne. I catch them – and this year has been remarkably plentiful in terms of both student illnesses and my own illness. The other nasty side effect is being self employed I miss out on income. What to do?

I need to stop being upset about being sick and look at recovery. Here are my steps to vocal health:

1. REST. Get enough sleep. If your body is sick it needs to recover.

2. FLUIDS. LOTS of water, herbal teas (non drying!). I love the Vocal Five Teas because the seed which comes with the beautiful organic teas (Sterculia Lychnophora)  is great for reducing inflammation (Chinese medicine) but check with your doctor if in any doubt. Try to avoid menthol based teas and try chamomile, liquorice, ginger, lemon and my favourite, jasmine tea. Hot water with lemon and honey and bits of fresh garlic is another favourite of mine. But beautiful filtered water and lots of it is the best!

3. VOCALISATION – rest but not COMPLETE vocal rest. Unless your doctor or an ENT suggests this (usually after surgery – or if you have laryngitis where the larynx is inflamed), some resonant voice exercises may be useful in the healing process following inflammation. (LeBourgne, W, Rosenberg, M. 2014. The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing: San Diego. p116.). What are resonant voice exercises? Try some semi-occluded vowel exercises, such as making sounds through a straw, bubbling the straw into water, small quiet glides on ee or oo. Check out this article from The Voice Council which included Ingo Titze’s now famous straw exercise YouTube video.

4. Keep up your body stretches. Head, neck, shoulder back and body stretches. I start every lesson with stretches and see no reason to stop stretching because my lungs are playing up!

5. PRACTICE SILENTLY. This really works! Practising using your imagination, imagine you are singing, use all the muscles but make no sound. This avoids excessive vocal use in recovering voices but ensures your muscles and brain are still doing the practice. Research presented by Prof Graham Welch at the Hobart ANATS conference (October 2015) “Singing Futures: Pedagogies, Practices and the Digital Age” indicated that the brain continues to lay down the neural pathways seen during practice almost as strongly when imagining you are practicing. This was shown via MRI scans which clearly demonstrated similar brain activity levels during actual practice and imaginary practice.  Great news if you have a performance or audition coming up and the large strikes. Try it – I have used it here in the studio to great success.

So now, I am off for cup of tea, some straw exercises, and some more rest.

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