Drug and Alcohol Use

This section of the manual is not meant to be a review of the St. Olaf College drug and alcohol policy, nor an ethical investigation of the use of mind-altering substances. It is, however, meant to be an objective consideration of how these drugs affect the voice. Hopefully this information empowers students to make decisions that support their personal goals, whatever they may be.


Cigarette smoking is well known to contribute to serious health problems, including cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and emphysema. Now banned in many public places but still common in others as well as in private, tobacco smoke also contains chemicals that damage the cells inside the voice box.

Inhaled smoke is burning hot, which traumatizes the vocal folds with every puff. After just a few months of constant cigarette use, the mucous membranes inside the voice box become yellow-stained from nicotine, just like the fingers that hold the cigarettes. Over time, exposure to heat and chemicals in cigarette smoke makes the vocal folds inflamed and swollen with extra fluid as the body tries to protect itself. The voice sounds rough and low pitched.

Just like those in the nose, the passages of the lower airway are lined with mucous membranes and microscopic hairs called cilia. These cells gather and clear germs and debris out of the lungs. Hot chemical smoke paralyzes them, so they can’t do their protective job. As a result, smokers are more likely to get bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses. Frequent, persistent couching may further damage the vocal folds.

If you wouldn’t dance barefoot on a chemical fire, why would you repeatedly pull hot toxic smoke across your vocal cords? The only good answer is that tobacco is highly addictive, cleverly marketed, and tough to break away from. For the sake of your long-term health and especially for your voice, use any and all available tools, medications, support groups, and online clubs to help you quit smoking. It often takes several tries to extinguish this habit permanently, so if you relapse, don’t give up – look for even more support.

Second hand smoke can also be a problem for professional voice users. While you can’t always control your living environments, the very real health dangers of second-hand smoke are beyond question. Ask people who truly support your vocal development to help keep the air around you clean.


As I’ve already discussed, drinking alcohol can contribute to both dehydration and acid reflux. Alcohol can also interfere with getting restorative sleep. So please take alcohol seriously as a general risk factor to vocal health. An additional danger is that when you drink you lose good judgment about how much and how loudly you use your voice.

In sum, the negative effect of alcohol is two-fold. It dehydrates your body, making your voice less resilient to recover from traumatic vocal use, and it also has an anesthetic effect that causes one to press their vocal cords together harder in order to achieve a normal sensation while talking or singing.


Most marijuana users have done research online or among friends and learned that marijuana burns hotter than tobacco but has fewer extra chemicals in it. So they’ll smoke marijuana using a water pipe or vaporizer, or consume “edible” forms, and figure it’s safe enough.

Marijuana is nowhere near risk-free, especially for those who use it regularly. It is also still illegal in Minnesota. The mental effects of marijuana – including the complications of obtaining it and a real risk of psychological addiction – need to be considered along with the physical effects in making your most informed decision about what’s best for your voice and voice use.

Consider that throughout this manual, emphasis has been placed on clear awareness of mind and body and of their relationship to the feeling you want to communicate. Any chemical that dulls your awareness of your body sensations, that reduces your motivation to practice and exercise, or that otherwise decreases your daily dedication to a healthy lifestyle, is likely to interfere with your vocal development and wellness.

If you find yourself not achieving the vocal goals you’ve set for yourself, and you feel anxious or resentful about the possibility of giving up marijuana, you may have a problem with marijuana and may benefit from getting help to stop using it. Seek out the help of an addiction specialist. A generally clean-and-sober lifestyle shows the extra care that your voice appreciates and deserves.