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It’s a show day, and you just woke up. You notice that your throat is a little dry and scratchy, and it feels weird when you swallow.  Your nose is a bit stuffy, and you write it off to morning allergies.  Throughout the day it gets worse, and by show time your vocal cords are coated with gunk, swallowing is torture, and you can’t breathe through your nose. Your voice feels like it’s swathed in an itchy wool blanket and sounds like a goose caught in a blender. What do you do?

You can’t send a sub. You don’t have one. You can’t cancel the show.You know that your group would sound lame without you, and it’s going to be dicey in any case because you don’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth from one second to the next. Trying to "sing the stuff off your cords" doesn’t work either, since it is thick and sticky and your cords feel like they’re entombed in gorp. 

Well, there’s a broad range of tools and techniques at your disposal, depending on the severity of your vocal distress. Here are a few tried and true solutions to varying degrees of infirmity. Disclaimer: I’m not an MD. Severe vocal distress and vocal damage should be attended to immediately by a qualified specialist.

The scratchy throat:
You don’t need a topical anesthetic throat spray, although it’s not a bad idea. You can make your own soothing gargle that’ll temporarily quench the fire. Put a few ounces of warm water in a glass. Stir in a teaspoon of salt and one crushed aspirin. Gargle as often as necessary. If you habitually suck on lozenges, make sure they are sugarless – better for the throat. The sugar can dry out your throat and exacerbate the problem. Likewise eucalyptus – feels good but ultimately causes more dryness.  

Steam is a blessed unguent for raw throats. You can’t always find a steam room, but hovering over a pot of water on a stove, or even a little electric hot pot if you’re in a pinch, can provide relief from pain, open up swollen sinuses, and break down the ick that’s coating your cords. Sometimes sitting under a very hot shower will do the trick if you stay there long enough. 

The stuffy nose:
Lots of people resort to mucus thinners like Humibid to break down the gunk that can put the kibosh on phonation. Those iodine-based drugs work slowly, and you don’t need them most of the time. There is one cheap, topical treatment that works immediately and can be repeated as often as necessary. My allergist calls it his "secret weapon". It’s an old opera singers’ nostrum called "Alkalol". It’s available over the counter in drugstores, comes in a brown bottle like hydrogen peroxide, and costs only a few bucks. You can gargle with it, spray or drop it right into your nose, and the stuff acts like Drano but leaves your sinuses and throat clear and soothed. I usually buy several bottles at a time so I always have a backup. I can’t stress enough just how effective this stuff is. When your throat is coated with gook that feels like driveway tar on a hot summer day, this is the stuff that will flush it.

Some singers swear by a concoction of warm apple cider vinegar, honey and cayenne pepper. Drinking it is supposed to break up mucus, raise your body temperature, and act as a systemic disinfectant.  I’ve tried it. The taste is what you’d expect, and I experienced none of the supposed benefits of this brew. Let me know if it works for you, that is if you are brave, stupid or desperate enough to try it. I’ve been all three.  

When it’s really, really bad:
Every singer needs a plan B. Say that your poor ol’ vocal cords have swollen past the point of being able to bang together. Having extremely long, thick cords, as I do, even a mild case of laryngitis (which is fundamentally a swelling of the cords) turns my cords into monster truck tires, and the only notes of which I am capable are in the subsonic rumble range. Nothing short of an Rx for cortisone will shrink them at that point. I do not recommend it, but it can be a savior if you absolutely have to sing and your voice is funked up. The upside is that it really does shrink the cords back down to size. The downside, apart from possible depression and elevated blood pressure, is that, once it’s working, your cords feel great. They won’t swell no matter how much you beat on them – until the cortisone wears off. Since the cortisone only masks symptoms, and you are, in reality, singing on sick cords, there’s going to be a backlash. Once the stuff leaves your system, your cords aren’t going to be very happy that you used them when all they wanted to do was hibernate.  That’s when your cords are the most vulnerable to further injury. So plan B requires something more of you; don’t talk unless you have to.  

Very few things are worse for the voice than talking. Talking in noisy environments is the worst, because you talk louder and force the voice when it should be home in bed. So if your voice is ailing or even just fatigued, shut up. Yeah, it’s difficult. Who likes to talk more than singers? But it may mean the difference between having a voice at show time and not.  

Alcohol has a downside in this scenario, too. It dries out the cords, and it also makes them swell for thirteen hours following ingestion. So if your cords are already hurting, forego the SoCo. And make sure that what you do drink is room temp or warmer. No ice, no cold drinks, and try to avoid sugary beverages as well. I don’t think I have to say "don’t smoke", but I’ll say it anyway. Don’t smoke.  

The legendary tenor Enrico Caruso broke all the rules. He smoked cigarettes. He drank wine with at least two of his three daily meals. He also occasionally would get swollen cords. His solution was quite dangerous, and these days would probably be illegal. He would soak a rag in ether and inhale it before a performance. It has the same effect on the cords as cortisone, which was probably unknown back then. I’ve never tried this, partly because overdoing it will make you pass out, and partly because where in the hell do you get ether?  

This is just a gloss of some of the most common techniques (except for the ether) for dealing with a sick voice. There are many others, and we haven’t even looked at vocal maintenance; all the proactive ways to keep your voice healthy. Maybe that’ll be next month.  

Happy Singing!



Barry, you hit this dead on. My first experience with this stuff came years ago in High School. I was stuffed up, wheezing, coughing...no way I was performing (I so I thought). I was handled a bottle and a medicine dropper. I first tried gargling the mentholated sea water that was in the H30 looking bottle...NASTY tasting!

I then took the dropper, tipped my head back and squirted some in my nose. OYE! I first went through a state of total sinus drainage...followed by my ears opening up, followed by me feeling like I just took a hit from a O2 tank! :eek :zzz :eek I thought I was going to pass out from the sudden rush of oxygen going to my brain! It does take some getting used to, really...but works better than any medicated solution I have ever tried. :zzz

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