Taking Care of Your Respiratory System

The vocal folds vibrate in response to a stream of air flowing out of the body. The voice box and the breathing areas above it (the upper respiratory tract) also filter the air coming into the body. The quality of air coming in affects the health of the entire area.

Both your nose and your mouth — the entry passages for air — are lined with moist mucous membranes. Air passing through these passages picks up moisture and begins to match the inner body temperature. While the mouth is a large, simple opening, the nose is a curly “obstacle course,” allowing a more prolonged effect on environmental air.

The nasal membranes also contain thousands of microscopic hairs (cilia) whose job is to catch dust, allergens, and anything else that could hurt your lungs. By the time air gets to the voice box, it is warm, humid, and filtered.

If these entry passages are overly dry — because the nose is congested and one breathes only through the mouth, or perhaps because medication or whole-body dehydration have decreased fluid levels between cells — the larynx will also become dry.

Other airborne problems for the voice come in the form of irritating chemicals, extreme temperatures, or infectious bugs that the nose and mouth didn’t catch. The most common, controllable irritant is cigarette smoke, discussed in the section titled “Tobacco, Alcohol, and Marijuana.”

Staying internally hydrated is important, but humidity in the air you breathe is also important to keep the surfaces of the larynx comfortable. In humid climates, this is no problem. In dry climates or environments with air-conditioning or central heat, your voice will be happier if you add moisture. While the humidity of the Minnesotan summer is conducive to vocal health, the winters can be deadly. In the winter, the cold air carries very little moisture. Because wintertime humidity is so low, what little moisture that is around is quickly sucked up into the air. Moisture also evaporates from your body, leaving your skin, nose, and throat parched.

There are many ways to increase humidity and soothe your voice with moisture. Take extra long showers when your voice is under stress and at night after a long day of talking or singing. While the steam of showers directly brings moisture to your vocal chords, the heat and steam can really dry out your skin. Long showers need to be offset by drinking water to keep your body and voice hydrated.

Inexpensive steam appliances called “facial steam spas” work very well for the voice. Use it daily whenever you feel the need for extra vocal care (before a performance, between rehearsals, etc.).

In addition to these direct steam treatments, more diffuse humidity can be very helpful, such as from a humidifier or vaporizer next to your bed. It should be filled with water only, not commercial mentholated additives or aromatherapy oils. To avoid mold contamination, keep the device clean by following the manufacturer’s instructions.

Here is another humidification trick for those moments when you’re in the middle of a vocal performance or presentation and your throat is drying out: Life the tip of your tongue as if you were saying “L.” This maneuver offers more wet surface area to incoming air. Even a few breaths this way can temporarily ease a dry throat, and no one will know.