Are You Hoarse?

Hoarseness usually indicates that there has been some serious vocal misuse. Fortunately, it’s only a temporary condition that results from straining the vocal folds or “cords.” And yet, it can become serious if there is chronic abuse or misuse of the voice which is likely to occur when one’s voice is used extensively.

Over the past few months, complaints of neck and back soreness, eye strain, and throat hoarseness after hours of speaking on end in virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and WhatsApp have continued to rise. Many people are unintentionally straining their voices during these meetings, by raising their voices to compensate for technical difficulties.

How Does Your Voice Work?

The vocal sound is created by activating your vocal folds, commonly known as the vocal “cords.” They’re not cords, however, but folds of the mucous membrane. The vocal folds, located in the larynx, act upon the column of exhaled air by coming together and vibrating thousands of times per second to produce sound (similar to crickets’ wings rubbing together).

Proper breathing habits, combined with these folds coming together gently, produce a warm, pleasant voice. Poor breathing, “slamming” the vocal folds together, or exposing the vocal folds to abrasive conditions inside your larynx results in a strained voice that is unpleasant to listen to, difficult to hear, and painful for the one speaking.

What can you do to avoid this undesirable scenario?

The 4 Do’s

1. Train Yourself to Breathe Correctly

Diaphragmatic breathing or allowing your belly to extend out every time you inhale is the body’s natural way of breathing. It’s distinct from incorrect breathing: moving your chest (thoracic breathing) or shoulders (clavicular breathing). Diaphragmatic breathing helps create full and easy breaths which facilitate producing sounds without strain and minimal effort.

2. Keep yourself Hydrated

Keeping your vocal folds moist is very important. Dry mucous membranes produce a raspier sound. Speaking anxiety often shuts off the flow of saliva needed for a healthy mouth and throat. To avoid looking like a lizard flicking its tongue out constantly, stay hydrated with plain water, or infuse it with a favorite fruit or vegetable.

It takes no effort to develop the habit of not drinking enough water when you are busy. You might prefer to have coffee by your side during a long Zoom meeting. But remember to keep water stocked in your home workspace, and be sure to take “water breaks” aside from coffee breaks.

3. Speak Softly and Rest Your Voice when Necessary

If you feel strain or pain, it’s time to rest your voice. If that isn’t possible, try speaking more succinctly (fewer words = less speaking). And cultivate your trust in silence. If you have a sore throat, a cold, or laryngitis, rest your voice. Don’t try to talk when you’ve “lost” your voice, as this may damage your vocal cords. If you must talk, speak in a soft breathy voice. In the event that this voice issue persists, please seek professional help from a speech therapist.

4. Try Standing More Often

When possible, try standing during meetings. Standing relaxes the muscles in your head and neck. When you are seated for extended periods of time, it’s natural for the jaw to jut forward, which often causes tension in the neck and throat.

The 4 Don’ts

1. Foods, Drinks, and Habits to Avoid

Some people report that dairy products such as milk and yogurt will coat your throat, which causes the sound coming out of your mouth to be muffled, giving you that feeling that you want to keep clearing your throat. Smoking dries up the vocal cords that need to stay moist. That’s why smokers often have voices that are deeper, raspier, and dry-sounding, different from when they were younger. Caffeinated drinks and alcoholic beverages also dehydrate your vocal cords. You can try to compensate for these drinks by drinking plenty of water.

2. Try to Avoid Clearing Your Throat

Clearing your throat replaces the gentle action of air passing through the vocal cords with them being slammed together. Anything that increases tension in the vocal cords or is abrasive to them works against producing a healthy sound. What’s more, clearing your throat could damage those delicate membranes. So, if you must clear your throat, please do it gently. You might consider the urge to clear your throat as a reminder to take a sip of that hydrating beverage.

3. Don’t Speak Louder

Instead of speaking louder, think about investing your voice with more energy.

“Speaking louder” is essentially increasing the tension in your vocal folds, and it usually worsens the quality of your voice. If you need more volume, just increase the breath-energy emanating from your diaphragmatic area by taking a deep breath, then consciously contracting the diaphragm. This will support the sound with a full cushion of air.

4. Whispering Can Be a Problem

Experts disagree as to whether or not whispering damages the voice. Whispering is one of the speaking techniques which doesn’t cause the vocal cords to vibrate. Rather, the larynx is bypassed and plays no part in producing the sound. However, if you choose to whisper, try not to squeeze your vocal cords together with pressure. Aside from usually being unnecessary, it can be harmful.