Vocal Health

‘Tis the season…No I don’t mean the holidays – it’s the cold and flu season when I am surrounded by students cancelling voice lessons because they’ve lost their voice or letting me know they can’t come to a rehearsal because their head is clogged. These days we have access to all sorts of alternative methods and Western medicines to deal with illness. You may have a cabinet filled with remedies and go-to things that you use when you’re getting sick and a favorite doctor or modality or concoction that you swear by. Some things work for some people and some don’t. Who knows why? You just have to experiment until you find what does the trick for you.

From what I’ve observed, people generally seem to get sick either from the neck up (throat, sinus and ear) or the neck down (throat, chest, lungs and cough). I’m a neck up person myself (in this regard) so I can only speak to that. Though I’m certainly not a doctor, I have unfortunately had a lot of experience with ear, nose and throat sickness. Apparently my voice is both my place of power and my weak point. We’ve all heard that when you’re sick you need get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. I thought I’d tell you about a few things I’ve found that work for me. You may or may not know about them but I hope you’ll find something helpful. (At another point I’ll suggest things that may be of specific interest to singers.)


Sore Throat/Cough

Cough Drops:
Most cough drops are sweetened with sugar and if they are sugar free they have aspartame in them. If you try a lozenge that has Zinc it can be gritty and unpleasant. I like the brand called Zand. They have an elderberry zinc flavored lozenge that tastes good and is sweetened with rice syrup. Zinc has a reputation for shortening the length of a cold, but don’t overuse it because it can upset your stomach. https://www.amazon.com/Herbalozenge-Lozenges-Elderberry-lozenge-Count/dp/B000FDBQBE/ref=sr_1_4_a_it?ie=UTF8&qid=1512875518&sr=8-4&keywords=zand+elderberry

Home Remedy:
My mother’s home remedy for a sore throat was gargling. The prescription: warm water, distilled vinegar, salt and a crushed aspirin.  Stir and gargle. I swear by it and use it to this day when I have a sore throat. Salt water can remove viruses from the tonsils and adenoids in the back of your throat. Tonsils and adenoids are important parts of the immune system because they’re located near the entrance of the breathing passages and are a first line of defense against undesirables in the air.

Stuffy Nose and Sinus

Nasal Saline Rinse:
I rinse my sinuses with salt to get rid of bacteria, dust, pollen and bacteria. Salt water is hypertonic to the bacteria. Apparently this means there’s a greater concentration of salt outside the cell than inside and when the bacteria is exposed to this, the water inside the bacteria will be sucked out leaving the bacteria dead or disabled. Simple but effective.

Homemade Saline Solution:
You can make a saline solution to wash your nose and sinuses at home to use with a plastic squirt bottle, Neti pot or cupped hands: mix 2-3 teaspoons of non-iodized salt, 1 quart of distilled, sterile or boiled water and a teaspoon of baking soda.

Pre-made Saline in a Squeeze Bottle:
Saline: http://www.ebay.com/itm/like/142578126610
Saline with Aloe: https://www.vitacost.com/naturade-nasal-spray-saline-and-aloe
Neil Med: https://www.cvs.com/shop/neilmed-sinus-rinse-kit-prodid-385631?skuId=385631

Neti Pot:
If my nose is really drippy and clogged, I use the Net pot both morning and evening because it thins mucus and helps to flush it out. You can find one at any drug store.  https://www.cvs.com/shop/cvs-sinus-wash-neti-pot-kit-prodid-896024?skuId=896024
How to use –https://www.mylifestages.org/health/allergies/how_to_neti.page
Cleaning –
Rinse the Neti pot out thoroughly after using and air-dry. Not doing so could turn it in to a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites. Yikes.

Steam Inhaler:
A steam inhaler is a small and inexpensive device that I use to inhale moist warm air through my mouth or nose, or both at the same time. https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=vicks+steam+inhaler

Homemade version:
Boil a pot of water on the stove (maybe drop in some mint tea leaves), put a towel over your head and inhale the steam that way. Be careful not to singe your nose!

Ear Pain/Infection
Don’t wait on this. I see a doctor and have my ears checked as soon as possible. A regular doctor is good but I think an ENT doctor (ear, nose and throat) is best in this case because it’s their focus and they have many more ways to deal with the ears than a regular doctor.


If you’re still in the early stages and have a virus, Western medicine can’t really do much except treat the symptoms. I’ll use Chinese medicine to treat a virus and it’s often able to fend off sickness or clear it up. I recommend seeing an experienced practitioner. (When the viral infection has been hanging around for a couple of weeks and I’ve developed a bacterial infection, I turn to Western medicine.)

Yin Qiao
I’ve tried Yin Qiao (pronounced “yin-chow”) pills and tablets. They can work well, but I find  the powder version is stronger and more effective for me. I take it at the very first hint of getting sick and then a few times more even if I feel OK. It comes with a little spoon, so put one level spoonful in about 4 ounces of warm water, mix it up and drink. (Just so you know, it doesn’t taste great.) Eat with some food so it doesn’t upset your stomach. https://www.bellinghamchineseherbs.com/products/kpc-yin-qiao-san

Homeopathic medicine views illness symptoms as a normal response of your body to get healthy and it’s supposed to enhance the normal healing process. It’s based on the idea that “like cures like:” a substance that causes a symptom in a healthy person is taken in a very small amount by a sick person who has that symptom in order to cure the illness. (I’m not quite sure how that works.) I haven’t had much success with homeopathy but this year I decided to try something new. It’s a homeopathic medicine that you take over several weeks and months: Influenzinum for combatting the current year’s strains of the flu and Thymuline for strengthening your immune system. I’ll let you know how this works for me.

Acupuncture views disease as disruptions in the flow of energy (Qi) and corrects this by inserting very thin sterilized needles in different points on your body. I know, it sounds horrible but it’s actually not painful. I find it very relaxing for me and generally fall asleep and feel wonderful when I wake up. Some people gets great results when they’re sick. I use it for my general health because so far it hasn’t helped me when I’m getting sick.


Sudafed has epinephrine in it and definitely makes me speedy, but when I have a sinus infection I definitely use it, but that’s the only time. I take it early in the day so it doesn’t keep me up at night.

When a virus hangs around long enough and becomes a bacterial infection then I turn to antibiotics. I don’t like taking them but they do work. Of course it’s important to get the right one that targets your particular infection and not to take them too often. I also take probiotics after antibiotics to help restore my gut to some sort of balance.

Steroid nasal sprays (ex. Nasonex) are a last resort for me when a sinus infection and clogged throbbing sinuses become a pounding headache. If I use one of these sprays too many days in a row it will actually cause a headache for me. (It seems weird that a side effect of a drug can be the very symptom you’re treating.)

When my sinuses or ears are clogged and I have to fly in a plane, I use a few sprays of a decongestant in my nose about 20 minutes before landing so my ears won’t clog when the pressure changes as we’re  descending. I drink lots of water to keep from drying out my vocal cords. Decongestants (ex. Afrin) help shrink the blood vessels in your nose and open the air passages. They’re related to adrenaline. So one of the side effects is a jittery feeling which can make it difficult to go to sleep and elevate your blood pressure and pulse rate.  IMPORTANT: Don’t use for more than 3 days in a row. Overuse can cause the medication to stop working, the congestion to return and give you the urge to use more sprays more frequently resulting in a dependency. (Another example of a drug’s side effects producing the very symptom you’re treating.)

So, that’s it for now. I would love to hear from you as well so please, feel free to share strategies that work for you. We can all help each other get through another cold and flu season. Write in the “Comments” section below this post.

10 thoughts on “Vocal Health

  1. I like Thayers Slippery Elm losenges when I am coughing. They do contain maple sugar, but I think they are fairly soothing and only need one to stop most coughs.

  2. I might also mention that honey is also a natural anti-biotic, so add that tablespoon to your tea. I like a tea made with slippery elm, it is very soothing and has an anise taste.

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