Sore throats and voice issues are every singer's nightmare, and just like the common cold there are eleventy billion 'remedies' out there, most of which don't work. Remembering one simple fact can help you decide what works and what doesn't: the vocal cords need to be wet, and to do this the body produces and coats them in thin mucous. So, thin mucous is GOOD! When we have a cold, the mucous thickens and blocks up the sinuses as it's being used for trapping viruses and other nasties. But the good news is you can thin it back down by drinking lots of water.
So. Here are some things you can do which DO work, and some things to avoid when you're singing:
- Get plenty of sleep
- Drink lots of water
- Steam your head over a bowl of hot water (or you can buy a special facial steamer)*
- Siren gently (up and down on an 'ng' sound - if this isn't comfortable, stop)
- Exercise - even a brisk walk will help
- Rest your voice
- Use a sinus rinse if you can tolerate it
- Raise the head of your bed or sleep propped on a couple of pillows if you have a cough
- Whisper - this dries the vocal cords making them highly susceptible to damage
- Sing when you are ill or very tired (also, you risk spreading colds to other singers, they won't thank you)
- Exceed the stated dose of cold and flu remedies (they thicken the mucous to stop your nose running)
- Take antiseptic/anaesthetic throat medications when you are singing
- Spend lots of money on throat pastilles which don't have any active ingredients (see below)
- Drink excessive amounts of alcohol before singing (at least 24 hours)
- Eat large meals late at night
- Hot honey and lemon drinks (with or without whisky!)
- Cough medicines
- Olbas oil / menthol*
There is little or no evidence to show that drinking hot drinks or sucking glygerine pastilles will do anything to 'heal' a sick or overtired voice. The act of swallowing can have a beneficial massaging effect on the larynx so if you feel it helps, then go ahead and suck a menthol-free sweet (just not when you're actually singing, because that's a choking hazard!) Drinking hot drinks is also soothing and helps hydrate you, unless you put too much whisky in them, so don't stop doing it, just don't expect a magic act.
*Don't put olbas oil or Vicks into the steam. Menthol activates the cold receptors in the nasal passages, causing irritation. The reason you feel so much clearer after a big sniff of a Vicks stick or sucking a Vocalzone is that your body has detected something very cold and has in fact numbed the area. If you sing with a numb sensation around your vocal cords you risk damaging them due to a lack of feeling, just as you would if you did strenuous exercise when you've taken strong painkillers.
Most cough medicines are glycerine based and, while the placebo effect should not be underestimated, do not actually have any effect on your cough. Medicines containing guaifenesin (expectorants) are good as they increase thin mucous.
Lastly, if your voice problem persists for more than two weeks you should go and see your doctor and ask to see an ENT who specialises in voice.
COPING WITH COLDS: upper respiratory infections and the voice, by Sara Harris (Specialist Speech and Language Therapist and Team member, The Lewisham Voice Clinic, London) https://www.britishvoiceassociation.org.uk/voicecare_coping-with-colds.htm
Voice care: Sorting fact from fiction; Lesley Childs, M.D. Otolaryngology https://utswmed.org/medblog/vocal-cords-care-qa/
Dr Jenevora Williams, pers comm.