Get That Gunk Off of Those Cords!
Allergies? Still getting over that cold? Ate something last night that didn’t quite agree with you? There are many reasons that people get occasional excess mucus on their vocal folds. For most people, the presence of excess muck on the cords often goes unnoticed, but for singers, it can present an annoying problem. Excess globs of yuck on the vocal folds makes the phonation process very frustrating. Cracks, pops, and scratches seem to come out of the voice from nowhere and vocal technique can be quite sluggish when things are over lubricated or gummed up.
As always, if you have a chronic issue with excess mucus, or the condition accompanied by pain, or you are noticing hoarseness that is either recurring or has lasted more than a few days, it’s essential that you see your laryngologist immediately. Find someone who is highly experienced working with singers. This specialized ENT can run a scope and have a very detailed look at what is going on. Your problem could be due to chronic post-nasal drip, acid reflux, GERD, vocal injury or other conditions which require immediate specialized attention. Don’t try to self diagnose. If your voice is causing you problems for more than a few days, see your doctor.
Yet, for those occasional times when you need to sing and you just have that layer of ick on top of your cords, there are a few things that you can try that may give you some relief.
Nasal Irrigation: There are several devices that work well at flushing the sinuses and thus give some relief to the constant drainage on the vocal folds. When there is excess mucus on the cords, this can be done a couple times per day to get relief.
1. The Neti Pot: This device originated in India, and can be made of several types of materials such as glass, ceramic, metal or even plastic. They often look like a small tea pot with a long thin spout. The pot is filled with lukewarm water which has been salinized to the proper ph. The spout is placed in one nostril, while over a sink or other basin and the water is allowed to flow in one nostril and out the other. After both sides have been irrigated, the nose is blown gently to remove any excess water that hasn’t drained out.
2. Nasal irrigation bottle: This device uses the same basic procedure as the neti pot, but the salinized water is placed in a plastic squeeze bottle that has a spout on the top which is placed in the nostril. The bottle is gently squeezed to allow the water to flow in one nostril and out the other.
3. Electronic irrigation. This is often accomplished with a special attachment that fits on the end of a waterpik type device and into the opening of the nostril. The salinized water is placed in the reservoir of the waterpik and the machine sends the water into the nose in a gentle pulsating rhythm which cleanses the sinuses and exits the other nostril.
Mucus Solvents: Another trick that many singers use is a mucus solvent, such as the old standard, Alkalol. Note that we aren’t talking about “alcohol”. Alkalol is the brand name of an all natural product that has been on the market since 1896. Alkolol can be used neat, or diluted with water. It can be used in a nasal irrigation device, or a small amount can be simply sniffed up into the sinuses. Also, gargling with this solution can often give some relief to cords that are coated with mucus.
Steam therapy: My personal favorite way to deal with glued up cords, is to “steam clean” them. Of course you can stand in a hot shower, or fill a basin with hot water and put a towel over your head to breath the steam. But the best way to use steam to combat mucus is to use concentrated steam. This can be accomplished with a table top device such as a Vicks Personal Steamer, or a hand held steamer such as those sold by MyPurMist. The hand held devices are my favorite but unfortunately they are rather expensive. The table top steamers are actually quite effective and very affordable and easy to use.
If I’m suffering from phlegmy cords, I will often steam for 10 to 15 minutes two or three times per day. Also, the BEST trick in the book is to vocalize gently right on the steam.
I either have my hand held steamer in hand, or my table top steamer right next to me on a tall sturdy surface. I start out with a simple steaming for 3 minutes or so, and then start to do some gentle vocalizing. Each time I inhale to sing a vocalise, I inhale the steam. This way as I am singing, my cords are actually vibrating with steam coming through them. Done gently for 15 minutes or so throughout as much range as comfortable, I almost always notice that my voice has gotten quite clear and happy.
If I have to perform, I rarely will vocalize on steam directly before a performance. I prefer to vocalize on steam gently, early in the day and then rest my voice. I’ll do some basic warm ups prior to my performance and I’m usually good to go. Steam heats the cords, and like any other part of the body, heat will relax muscles quite a bit and make them very pliable. Just like you wouldn’t stretch in a sauna for 15 minutes and then go right out and play a sport, you don’t want to do any major performing on cords that have just gone through a steam treatment. Let the voice rest after steaming and you will usually notice the voice is in very good shape for the rest of the day.
There is no reason to let occasional gunk get the best of your voice. Take charge and get those cords healthy and clear!