An Owner's Guide For Your Voice
By Connie Keintz, Ph.D. / November, December 2012

People rely heavily on their voices in their work and every-day lives, but typically give very little thought to what is needed to maintain a healthy voice. Vocal hygiene means caring for your voice by being aware of the effects of what you eat and drink, your overall health, and how you use your voice. Suggestions for vocal hygiene can be easily implemented.

It's important to keep your body hydrated by drinking at least six to eight ounces of water a day. This level of water intake helps keep the mucus in your throat thin, which should help eliminate coughing and throat clearing (both of which are abusive to your voice).

Coffee, tea and sodas often contain caffeine, which can lead to dehydration. Alcoholic beverages are also drying to the vocal mechanism; you should drink two glasses of water for every drink containing alcohol. Sucking on fruity, hard candies such as Jolly Ranchers, as opposed to menthol lozenges, which have a very drying effect, best alleviates a dry, scratchy throat.
Another voice-related issue that can be influenced by diet is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD occurs when the acids that are normally present in a person's stomach to aid in digestion wash up through the pharynx, the tube that food moves through during swallowing. Sometimes these acids can move as high as the level of the larynx or voicebox. When this occurs, the vocal cords can become swollen or irritated, which can result in a hoarse voice.

GERD should be diagnosed and treated by a physician, as there are many medications that can alleviate this problem. In addition, it is recommended that individuals with GERD avoid spicy foods, citrus, chocolate and alcohol, which can cause flare-ups.

The effects of illness can be devastating to a person's voice. Overall good health will support a stronger voice. If you find yourself with a cold or upper respiratory infection that affects your voice, try not to overuse it when you hear hoarseness. Today's technology provides alternatives to speaking extensively. Utilize email or text messaging, rather than talking on the phone when your voice is affected by a cold or other illness.

Over-using the voice when it is weakened can lead to long-term voice problems. Many people think that whispering rests the voice. But whispering actually puts more strain on the vocal cords than normal speaking and should be avoided. Consult your physician, if you experience voice changes or weakness that might be related to medications.

Coughing and throat clearing can be hard on the voice, as it causes the vocal cords to slam together. If you have these habits, try to eliminate the source. For a dry throat, drink more water and suck on hard candies. For allergies, seek medical treatment. Many people with voice problems engage in behaviors that can be called "vocal abuse." If your job requires you to talk for long periods, be sure to take breaks that allow you to rest for ten minutes every two hours. If you must communicate in a noisy environment, consider using amplification, so you aren't straining to talk louder. If you need to speak to someone who isn't nearby, move closer instead of yelling across the room.

Smoking is one of the worst things you can do to your voice. Irritation of the vocal cords can lead to chronic laryngitis, growths or cancer. Always seek help from a physician or speech-language pathologist, if voice problems persist. A healthy body supports a productive voice, so follow these tips to sound your very best.

Dr. Connie Keintz is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Florida Atlantic University. She teaches, conducts research and supervises clinical sessions on voice disorders.

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