Picture the scene; it’s a cold, dark, damp afternoon in the middle of winter. The sky is full of dark clouds threatening to rain down. You’re sitting warm and cosy in your house, bunged up with a cold and feeling sorry for yourself. You know you have to go out tonight and sing at that gig, but you ask yourself “Do I know how to sing with a cold”?
It’s still cold and flu season and we find that people are always asking us, “how to sing with a cold”, and if it’s safe to do so.
To know how to sing with a cold, you first have to understand what a cold is, and how it affects your body. For the purposes of this article, we will only be talking about a cold, and not about the flu which is another thing altogether.
The Common Cold
The common cold (also known as nasopharyngitis, rhinopharyngitis, acute coryza, head cold, or simply a cold) is a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract which primarily affects the nose.
Symptoms include coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, and fever which usually resolve in seven to ten days, with some symptoms lasting up to three weeks.
Upper respiratory tract infections are loosely divided by the areas they affect, with the common cold primarily affecting the nose, the throat (pharyngitis), and the sinuses (sinusitis), occasionally involving either or both eyes via conjunctivitis. Symptoms are mostly due to the body’s immune response to the infection rather than to tissue destruction by the viruses themselves.
A common cold is different from the flu, or a lower respiratory infection which can affect your larynx, and/or chest.
From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_cold)
How a cold affects your body and your voice
Your body, when healthy, produces about 1 to 1.5 litres of mucus on a daily basis. The mucus is used to stop soft tissue drying out; helping to keep your throat, nasal passages and vocal folds lubricated as well as filtering out any nasty particles (like dust or pollen) before they can get into the body.
The mucus that occurs naturally on your vocal folds is to keep them lubricated as they produce sound when you speak or sing. It’s actually a very important part of the sound making process, without it your folds will rub together – sort of like when you rub your hands together but they’re really dry. There’s lots of friction and it feels bad, right? Now add some hand cream, and voila! That’s what mucus does to the vocal folds.
Sounds gross – so what else does mucus do?
Well, it’s much more than just a sticky goo. It contains antibodies that help your body to recognise unwanted invaders like bacteria and viruses; enzymes that kill the invaders; and protein that makes the mucus gooey/stringy and very inhospitable, amongst other things.
During an infection, like a cold, you may notice your body produces more mucus than usual. But, not just more of it, but a thicker and sometimes bizarre coloured mucus too!
It gets thicker to try and “trap” the virus, which causes it to “cling” to your vocal folds, which gives you a feeling that you need to constantly clear your throat. I heard a student once describe it as a “blanket over her vocal folds”.
Excessive mucus on the vocal folds is annoying, and can distort the sound, or even cause it to cut out as it affects the vibrations when you’re trying to sing.
Another unfortunate element of mucus overdose is in the nose. It can drip down the back of your throat onto your vocal folds causing irritation, which in turn causes your vocal folds to swell up to protect themselves. This is known as ‘post nasal drip’ and can be quite nasty if left untreated.
However, one side effect of a cold that some people do like is when their voice gets deeper. This is caused by your vocal folds swelling up from all the irritation and coughing, temporarily making them thicker, which in turns deepens your voice.
But, whilst you may like your temporary “Barry White” status (think Phoebe from friends when she has her “sexy phlegm”!), this can actually give you difficulties with singing. Your upper range will be diminished and you may find that you fatigue much quicker and more often than you are used to.
It’s important to note at this point that if you have the flu or a lower respiratory infection, you will/may have other symptoms as well as some of the ones above.
How does cold medication affect your voice?
Not all cold medicines are created equal, and whilst I’m not a medical professional to give medical advice, we can talk about the effect of some common medicines that people take.
These are used to shrink the blood vessels in your nose which stops them producing so much mucus. You usually take these to help you breathe clearly when your nose is blocked.
With this type of medication, two things can happen:
- You stop producing mucus. This then dries out your nasal and throat passages, which causes you to feel dry and can leave your voice feeling rough or tired quickly
- Your body becomes dependant on the decongestant. When you stop using it, you’ll very quickly find that your body produces way too much mucus until your system rebalances itself
Singers have to be very careful about using this type of medication, so ensure you drink plenty of water and be aware of these two side effects.
Numbing Throat Spray
These are used to take away the pain from a sore throat. Now, whilst this can bring you relief, if you are performing you may not have any sensation to feel strain or pressure in your throat when you are singing. During the 80’s, some rock singers used to have an anaesthetic injected into their necks so they couldn’t feel any pain or strain when they were singing.
Can you imagine the damage they must have done doing that? You may want to avoid these completely for the obvious reasons above. Or at least don’t sing or shout when using them.
Any medication with alcohol in it
Alcohol will have a drying effect on your throat and voice, which in turn will increase the amount of mucus your body is producing, so if possible avoid alcohol in medication. Or, avoid alcohol altogether!
That’s all fine, but do you know how to sing with a cold?
The answer is don’t, if you don’t have to. Your body is going to be tired and achy and it will be working towards making you better and not straining itself. The best thing you can do for yourself is rest, let your voice rest, drink plenty of fluids and keep warm.
If you have a gig or absolutely have to sing then follow our checklist below:
- If you just have a cold and there is no pain when you sing, make sure you are well hydrated, and take some over the counter pain relief (like paracetamol) to help with any headache or sinus pain
- You may also like to take Vitamin C, Zinc and Echinacea supplements to help your body fight off the infection and virus. A lot of people will take these during a cold, but they also work to prevent a cold too! Just make sure to use reputable brands, supermarket best value will not necessarily be the best quality of ingredients, but are better than nothing
- You’ll also find it helpful to steam your vocal folds using either a bowl of hot water with a towel over your head, or get yourself a portable steam inhalator. Breathe the steam in through your nose and out through your mouth. The moisture from the steam will help to loosen any sticky mucus, and will help to moisturise the vocal folds so they are more supple
- You will want to make sure you voice is well warmed up before you sing; not to the point where you have used up most of your vocal energy, but enough so the folds feel flexible and you have found your vocal balance again. A good teacher can show you how to do this without any problems
- When it comes to singing your songs, have a plan B in your head for certain notes. With puffy, swollen vocal folds you may not be able to reach all the notes in your range, so make allowances and alter any high notes as required to get through the song
- After you have finished singing, make sure you continue to hydrate, steam your vocal folds and then get as much rest as you can
The flu has a very different effect on your body and can completely put you out of action. High fevers and low energy levels will leave you wiped out to the point where you probably wouldn’t want to perform even if you absolutely have to.
Lower respiratory tract infections (like the flu) have to be monitored carefully; they can cause laryngitis which is when you lose your voice altogether. It’s very important that you don’t try to force your voice in this state, as you can seriously harm your voice by doing so. To combat this, you will need vocal rest, to follow your doctor’s instructions (or go to a doctor for advice), and take plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated.
When your voice does start to come back, it’s important to ease gently back into singing and vocalising. Don’t rush it, as you can end up causing your voice harm if you go too fast.
Things you can do to make your life easier
Well, don’t catch a cold for a start! Prevention is the best medicine in this case. Washing your hands, avoiding people who are ill, and drinking plenty of fluids are a great way to avoid catching it!
Other options include preventative measures like taking Vitamin C and Zinc supplements and carrying around anti-bacterial hand gel for when you can’t wash your hands. Wear a scarf to keep your neck warm and a hat to keep your head and ears warm. Make sure you get plenty of sleep, and eat healthily to help your body out and give it ammunition for when the cold does strike.
Why not check out our cold weather tips for singers to get more ideas for how to look after yourself in cold weather? The two go hand in hand so check it out!