There are a lot of strange ideas out there about singing and
and they pre-date the internet by hundreds of years.
A persistent 'red herring' is that excess mucus is due to
diet. That’s possible but not likely. Most
commonly excess mucus (a productive cough) is caused by infection, dry
air, lack of hydration (lack of water), or vocal fold inflammation
(which itself has numerous causes). Taking herbal remedies and altering
your diet may help initially, but in many cases they won’t address the
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF
If you need a quick fix I recommend the throat spray
Benzydamine (sold in some countries as Difflam). It’s a locally-acting
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory which also has local anaesthetic
and analgesic properties. Reducing inflammation is generally a good
idea in many situations as inflammation in its own right can prolong an
illness or make it more severe. Diflam is virtually free of
used it for many years.
Vocal folds can become inflamed directly by infection, or
indirectly by coughing off excessive phlegm produced during infection.
An early warning sign of a throat infection is thicker
Dry air & lack of water
Dry air, and especially cold dry air, causes the mucus
flowing upwards through the trachea to dry out, become
thicker, and flow more slowly. When the mucus eventually reaches the
folds in the larynx it causes you to cough by reflex in an attempt to
clear the folds. If you jog for exercise, the rapid breathing also
drying effect, compounding the problem. Because the flow has been
slowed, and the impact of every step in jogging may cause the mucus to
fall down or stay
down in the trachea longer, there may be no noticeable coughing effect
some time later.
Poor hydration (from consuming diuretics such as caffeine or
alcohol or simply not drinking enough water), and exposure to some
types of air conditioning where water is removed from the air,
can cause similar effects. The mucus becomes drier and thicker.
The vicious cycle of coughing & irritation
If your vocal folds (vocal cords) become inflamed more
mucus will be produced to help protect them. Unfortunately, this can
work against you if it causes you to cough even more, thus increasing
or prolonging the inflammation. That’s because when you cough or clear
your throat you hold your vocal folds very tightly together and force
compressed air between them. Being held together with such force makes
them hotter and more irritated, and when the air breaks through there
is friction with the air. Because of the high tension and the high air
pressure the folds then come back together and collide at great speed,
causing even more irritation. This sets up a vicious cycle: the folds
are a little inflamed, you cough, they become more inflamed, so you
cough again and so on. You are more likely to have this problem if you
habitually cough or clear your throat even when there is no mucus there
(called an ‘unproductive cough’). This can lead to the development of
nodules, one on each fold at the point where they first collide,
especially if there are other factors present such as poor singing or
Acid (hydrogen chloride) coming up from your stomach can easily get
onto your folds, especially if you are lying down, and we all lie down
A typical scenario: Late at night a singer finishes their opera, music
theatre show, rock gig, or karaoke bar, and picks up some take-away
curry on the way home. In their sleep they get reflux and don't even
know it. The next morning their voice is flemmy because of the acid
How and what you eat or drink can have a major influence on
your stomach's acidity, as can emotional stress and the 'fight or
flight' reflex (where acid is quickly pumped into the stomach).
Reflux during the day can be triggered by drinking milk drinks on an
empty stomach. The milk contains protein and fat but is a drink, not
solid food. This fools your stomach into 'thinking' you've just had a
big meal of protein, such as a steak. The stomach responds by secreting
a lot of acid to aid in the digestion of a lot of protein, but you
haven't had a steak and there is not a lot of protein. Hence, too much
acid is produced and about ten minutes after drinking the milk you have
acid coming up.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
Avoid cold drinks, caffeine & alcohol
Drink room-temperature water because it gives off more water vapour
which helps keep your folds lubricated, whereas cold water tightens
your muscles. It probably gets digested quicker, too. Some say hot
drinks may loosen the muscles too much but I have not found this to be
Keep away from caffeine because it's a diuretic. That is, it
causes you to urinate and dehydrate, as does alcohol. Alcohol wrecks
the co-ordination of the muscles and also knocks-out the
proprioceptors in the trachea which you use to adjust your breath
pressure. Ever wondered why drunk singers sound drunk? Now you know.
Some singers just have to have a tipple before they go on stage. It
helps them relax both mentally and physically. I've never done it, but
then I don't drink alcohol anyway. If you must drink, keep it small.
Try to resist the coughing reflex as long as you can
will cause a greater amount of mucus to build up on the folds so when
you finally do cough you will use much less force to clear it off.
Don’t worry if this means you’re talking or speaking with a very
strange sound, unless you’re actually performing. If you have an
audience you’ll have to clear your throat because they didn’t pay to
hear your phlegm!
Avoid throat lozenges
Some have an anaesthetic,
some have antibacterial properties, but ALL work by drying out your
mucus membranes and that is death to your voice. Anything with
eucalyptus oil, menthol, camphor oil etc will be drying.
Use ordinary or boiled lollies
make you salivate. These lollies can really make a big difference. What
a pleasant medicine!
Breathe through the nose
Inhale through the nose
whenever possible in singing, speaking or even when silent. It warms
and moistens the air.
Use a vaporiser
Whispering when your folds are inflamed will prolong the problem. If
possible, try to speak at a normal volume or perhaps even a little
louder than normal. It's all to do with how the airflow is used in good
speech, and that may or may not be something you can do properly just
from reading about it. When you inhale, take enough air to say what
you're going to say, then just let it all out as you speak. If you get
this right you will most likely find the pain of your inflamed vocal
folds is not as great. Your folds like it when you use the breath
You can get a vaporiser from a pharmacy, or put a bowl of
water on top of an oil heater or infront of an air heater (just be
careful about getting electrocuted from the water being spilt). You can
inhale steam from a kettle (but
don’t get too
close or it will be too hot and you could be seriously injured).
vaporiser will help your ticklish throat and will also help to clear
the eustachian tubes which run from inside your ears to the back of the
eucalyptus oil additives--they may be good for clearing your blocked
nose but they work by drying out your mucus membranes and that is a
major problem for the voice. Of course, you're not likely to be using
your voice in your sleep so the eucalyptus may be OK overnight. Just be
aware that in the morning you may have thick, dry mucus coming up from
your lungs for a while so try not to cough it off too frequently.
Remedies for an acid stomach
Quick fix: use an antacid, especially one that seals the top of your
stomach to prevent reflux in your sleep. But look into how and when you
eat, and especially food combining
to give yourself better stomach function and digestion so you don't get
excessive hydrochloric acid.
Many other factors
This article deals with some common issues for coughing and excessive
mucus in the singing and speaking voice. A cough, whether productive or
dry, can be both a symptom and a cause
of vocal fold inflammation and the situation may be compounded by
faulty singing or speaking technique and a great many other factors.
Therefore, if your problem is on-going it is best to see
someone knowledgeable in all these areas, such as the rare singing
teacher who has a depth of understanding of vocal health, the rare
speech pathologist who has specialised in this area (most don't), or an
ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) specialist medical doctor who deals with
these kinds of cases. If you're in Perth, give me a call or send me an email.
See my other articles:
My mobile is 0414 374 701.
Margaret Dylan Jones, MusB(UWA), DipEd,
LTCL, ATCL, AMusTCL, AMusA, is a
composer, piano accompanist and voice teacher, whose first
non-musical(?) hobby was examining old pianos at auctions with a
torchlight and a tuning fork.
(C) 2010 and 2012 Mix M D Jones.
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