So it's that time of the year again when we all give and receive; when we spend time celebrating with parties: eating and drinking treats usually forbidden the rest of the year; and hopefully enjoying life!
Unfortunately problems can occur when we perhaps give and receive the latest viruses, or parties take us to environments where we need to speak louder and cause us to stay up late. Perhaps we might remember that those treats we're eating are forbidden for a reason! This might lead to a situation where you awake one morning with a voice that doesn't seem to function like it should! This blog entry as well as the next two will be targeted at addressing the temporary loss of voice. Temporary voice loss can be called laryngitis although all voice loss is more properly referred to as aphonia (a=no, phonia=voice). It can be described as acute (immediate and possibly short term) or chronic (recurs or never goes away). This blog entry discusses basic principles of voice loss including the purpose of vocal folds or vocal cords, human individuality, the causes of temporary voice loss, and things to remember when deciding how to address temporary voice loss.
Vocal cords or more properly vocal folds are in essence two membranous covered "folds" of muscles located just above the trachea and in front of the esophagus. This is your best and your final step in preventing the accidental aspiration of foreign substances into your airways. When something "goes down the wrong way" that means instead of going into the esophagus it penetrated the vocal folds. When you cough to clear the foreign object you are manipulating your vocal folds to expel the foreign object and redirect it back into the esophagus. When you have a post nasal drip that triggers coughing you are using your vocal folds to eject that fluid and keep it out of your lungs.
When something irritates the vocal folds, which are covered by several layers of membrane some of these tissues can swell. If you are experiencing aphonia it is most likely that it is from the inflammation of tissue rather than a muscle weakness. The cause of the inflammation can be either from an organic matter such as cold, virus, or bacteria, or from what we call a functional problem. The difference can be significant or it can be moot as often functional problems start from over compensating when there is an organic problem. For instance, allergies might trigger the behavior of constantly clearing the throat. Unfortunately, clearing the throat involves slamming the vocal folds together, and repeating this action can lead to the production of more mucous to clear. The result might be aphonia originally stemming from allergies but continued by using a behavior to address the allergies.
On the other hand, a behavior such as using the voice at unsustainable volume levels for a long period of time, might produce an organic problem such as vocal nodules. This can change the quality of a person's voice. Because it is difficult to ascertain which came first--the behavior or the lack of voice--it is important that any aphonia without an obvious cause (such as a cold), or which continues past a few days, or occurs suddenly is checked by a qualified physician. Remember it is not just your voice we're talking about we are talking about the mechanism that keeps you from choking!
Of course while humans share maybe 99.9% the same physiology, there is perhaps .1 percent or maybe even less, that makes each of us truly unique. Not one of us has the exact same combination of characteristics which makes us so wonderfully different,m despite our sameness. This individuality reaches not only into eye color, height or skin color, but it means that you may not react exactly the same way to certain factors including viruses, behaviors, or even remedies in the same way as your BFF! So while your friends might be okay with the latest cold and able to function afterwards as well as ever, you may not and that is okay! Are blue eyes a sign of weakness? Hopefully you said no, likewise having a stronger reaction to a virus is not by any means a show of weakness. This gets to be very important when trading ideas on "solving laryngitis". Just as your doctor gathers information on you before prescribing a method of treatment it is important to consider your individual factors before using a "home remedy".
So things to consider when addressing aphonia include: When and how did it begin?--can you find an originating cause such as last night's football game or a horrible head cold? Did it occur suddenly or slowly? Is it true aphonia or simply raspiness or roughness? Before you use a remedy check out the possible side effects on the NCVS or similar websites. If you need rest--rest! Remember not all "natural remedies" are good for you, consider your individual body--if you are allergic to grass then inhaling camomile steam might not be a good choice for you. Finally, it is very important to remember that the first job of your vocal folds is to keep you from choking so you should never attempt to "coat" your vocal folds with substances. To do so may trigger coughing or worse a laryngeal spasm.
Trissa DiBenedetto WAlter
Is a singer, voice teacher, speech language pathologist, and certified vocologist