. Saturday, October 4, 2008
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Oh, you had a great time last night, telling war stories, hooting and hollering and doing your best Luciano Pavaroti imitation. But this morning you woke up with a murderous ache in the back of your throat. When you walked into the kitchen to greet the family, instead of “Good morning!” they heard “Googr . . .erg . . . grggoo . . . muhgrrr . . . .”

You’ve got laryngitis, an inflammation of the larynx, or vocal cords. You’ve also the most common symptoms, hoarseness and pain. “Singing badly or yelling and screaming––that kind of thing can inflame the vocal cords,” says Barry C. Baron, M.D., associate clinical professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center. Other things that can inflame your vocal cords include colds and flu, pollen, dry air, smoke and alcohol.

Regardless of how you get it, laryngitis does not destine you to lead a life of quiet desperation. You don’t lose your voice to laryngitis––it’s more like you lend it for a few days. Nevertheless, that’s a few days of unnecessary discomfort. Laryngitis is generally preventable.

Stop Vocal Cord Abuse!

Keeping your vocal cords in smooth working order doesn’t require much effort. All they really need is a little tender loving care––and a sufficient amount of rest and relaxation.

Shhhhhhhhhhh. You already know that screaming means trouble. But even talking can irritate your vocal cords––if you do it incessantly, warns Stephen Mitchell, M.D., chairman of the Speech, Voice and Swallowing Disorders Committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology––Head and Neck Surgery. If your job entails a lot of speaking, whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a salesperson or a motivational speaker, or if you’re just a motor-mouth, organize your schedule to give your vocal cords regular breaks.

Stop clearing your throat. Your vocal cords, unlike a lion’s, just aren’t designed for growling. Besides driving everybody around you crazy, constant throat clearing can cause laryngitis. To break this habit, take sips of water regularly throughout the day, suggests Dr. Mitchell.

Get the drop on postnasal drip. This by-product of a cold or an allergy can irritate your vocal cords, so break up the drip and nasal congestion with an over-the-counter expectorant.

Make sure your home isn’t a desert. During the cold winter months, does the heating in your house make the air as dry as burned toast? Indoor heating dries out your vocal cords, and when they get dry, they get irritated. To prevent this, use a properly working and always-clean humidifier, says Dr. Mitchell.

If you smoke, quit. Smoking is a major cause of laryngitis, says Dr. Baron. In fact, puffing on cigarettes month after month can chronically inflame the vocal cords. That’s why older women who are heavy smokers sometimes have heavy voices.


Constant vocal cord abuse can have some alarming consequences beyond simple laryngitis.

SINGER’S NODES. These are small white-gray knots or swellings that grow on the vocal cords. “Your voice can end up being very raspy and hard,” says Barry C. Baron M.D., an otolaryngologist in private practice at the California Pacific Medical Center who treats singers from the San Francisco Opera. “The nodes can stay there permanently, like calluses, unless you train to get rid of them by using your voice differently. Surgery to get rid of them is also an option".

VOCAL POLYPS. These are small, tumorlike growths on the vocal cords that may or may not be malignant. If the polyp is benign, hoarseness may come and go, but a malignant polyp can cause continuous and worsening hoarseness. Cigarette smoking is a big cause of polyps.

CONTACT ULCERS. These are sores on the vocal cords. Along with hoarseness, there may be pain that goes from deep within the neck up to the ear. You may also experience a tickle or urge to clear your throat, a lump in your throat, aching or dryness.

Soothing Your Sore Voice

Suppose you gave your vocal cords just a little more than they could handle, and now they’re angry. What can you do?

Stop talking, stop dripping, humidify, quit smoking. These are things you could have done to prevent laryngitis but didn’t. If you don’t do them now, you may make things worse.

Inhale some steam. Either from a sinkful of a hot water with a towel draped over your head or in a nice hot shower. The vapor will moisturize your vocal cords and help them feel better, says Dr. Baron.

Have an afternoon tea. Sipping warm tea may also provide comfort, says Dr. Baron. Sucking lozenges is also good. But gargling with saltwater, an old home remedy for sore throat, may not help your vocal cords much. They’re located too deep in the throat.

See a doctor. If you follow the above advice, simple laryngitis will usually cure itself within a few days. If it lasts more than a week, seek a doctor’s attention.


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