We all experience a cough at one point or another when singing: the singer's cough. However, there are different types of coughs and different causes for these coughs that can make it hard to know what to do. Here I will explain why we cough sometimes when singing and how you can stop it from happening.
Both a dry and productive cough can be eased with steam. A dry cough is caused by excess airflow irritating the vocal folds, which is prevented with breathing techniques. A productive cough can be from irritation, infection, dehydration or poor diet and is prevented by treating the underlying issue.
This is just a brief summary of the two types of singer's cough, but I will explain each in more detail below. I will also discuss what to do if you are in the middle of a performance, so that you can make it to the end of the song.
Singer's Cough: A 'Dry Tickle' Cough
A tickle in your throat, followed by a dry cough, is an indication that your vocal cords are irritated. This is usually caused by dry vocal cords from too much airflow through the larynx. This can lead to a productive cough, but I will discuss that further down.
Too much airflow around the vocal cords is usually caused by weak muscles in this area. The flow of air when you sing is controlled by the muscles of the vocal cords, which stretch and contract to allow the air to pass through from the lungs. When the vocal folds are pulled close together, very little air can escape and when they are held apart, more air comes through.
When the muscles in this area are weak (or have not been trained), they try to pull the vocal folds close together, but are not strong enough to resist the increased air pressure in the lungs. You can still hit the note, but more air is escaping as you do.
The more you sing, the dryer the vocal cords become. This causes the irritation in your throat (the tickle) and you will feel the urge to cough. Because the irritation is caused by drying of the vocal cords and not mucous, your cough will be dry as well.
Remedy for a Singer's Dry Cough
Stop Singing and Try Not to Cough
Firstly, if you feel this sensation in your throat, you should stop singing. Irritating your vocal cords further can lead to more serious problems such as damage/scarring, laryngitis or the development of vocal nodules.
These issues aren't likely to occur after singing one set of songs with a dry cough, but they will occur long-term if you ignore the irritation every time. When you do get the tickle, it's also best to try not to cough as this irritates the vocal cords even more.
Use a Vaporizer for Immediate Relief
For immediate relief, your dry throat will need moisture. An easy way of getting moisture back into your vocal cords is by using a vaporizer (vapor inhaler). This simply produces steam that you can inhale. The warm moist air that you breath in will help reverse the effect of the dry air from your lungs.
If you do not have a vaporizer/steamer, you can pour boiled water into a mug and inhale the steam from that. A vaporizer is just a lot easier to use and the steam is continuous (whereas a hot cup of water will not be hot for long).
If your throat has become sore, there may be something else that you are doing to cause it. You can read about the causes of a sore throat after singing here.
If You Have to Keep Singing
If you are in the middle of a song or a set of songs, bringing out a vaporizer is not really an option. Instead, keep your throat, neck and shoulders relaxed and focus on trying not to let the air escape.
If you are holding a microphone or are able to get your hand near your mouth, you should feel warmth but no airflow as you sing. You should also avoid straining your voice. I have outlined a number of ways to avoid straining when you sing in this article.
Preventative Vocal Exercises
These exercises below will help train the muscles in your larynx to release air slowly and prevent irritation to your vocal cords. This includes strengthening the muscles around the vocal folds and learning to control the diaphragm.
Slow Breathing Exercise
Take a deep breath in, expanding your stomach as you do. The fatter your stomach looks, the better. You want to avoid expanding your chest when you breathe in. Once you have taken a deep breath in, let the air out as slowly as you can with a 'sh' sound. Time yourself and then try to hold the 'sh' for longer each time.
Strengthening your Muscles with Vocal Slides
Vocal slides are so easy to do and they not only strengthen the muscles in your larynx within your vocal range, but also help them work together smoothly.
First sing a low 'oo' sound and then gradually slide your voice higher until you reach the top of your range. Once you reach the top, slide back down again. This should sound like a siren.
Second, use an 'Ah' sound while you yawn (a big fake yawn). You should hear your voice naturally slide from a higher pitch to a low pitch. Repeat these yawns and the sirens a number of times.
Realistically, you should be doing a range of vocal exercises every day to train your muscles to work properly when you sing. For more exercises relating to strengthening/controlling your voice, take a look at this article.
Singer's Cough: A Productive Cough
A productive cough is caused by excess mucous in your throat. This can be caused by a number of problems, which I have listed below.
- Irritated or inflamed vocal folds
- Poor diet
These are four very different causes for a productive cough in singers and each requires a different remedy. In addition to this, most of these issues are not caused by singing, they are simply underlying problems that cause a cough while, or after, you sing.
Irritated or Inflamed Vocal Folds
As I mentioned earlier, excessive dry air passing through the larynx will cause the vocal folds to dry out. This can cause irritation or inflammation, which will eventually increase mucous production. Therefore, the dry cough mentioned in the beginning of this article can develop into a productive cough.
A throat infection will cause pain as well as excess mucous in your throat. In this instance, you should already know you have an infection and should not be singing. This requires treatment from a medical professional.
Dehydration is caused by not having enough water throughout the day, excessive exercise, too much time in the sun or poor diet (see below). The lack of water causes the mucous in your throat to become thicker, which means it can accumulate around your vocal cords.
To avoid this, you should be drinking around one cup of water every hour (or ideally one third of a cup every half hour) to remain hydrated. It also takes around three hours for water to hydrate your vocal cords. With this in mind, you should be drinking no later than three hours before a performance.
There are a number of foods that cause excessive mucous production in the throat, which can lead to a productive cough. These include dairy, caffeine (from dehydration) and fatty foods. For the full list of foods you should avoid before singing, click here.
Remedy for a Singer's Productive Cough
The remedy for a productive cough when singing depends on the underlying cause, which has been outlined above. Interestingly, you can also use a vaporizer/steamer, like with a dry cough, to help with a productive cough.
The moisture from the steam helps loosen then mucous from your throat, which then allows you to clear it away. However, you should try swallowing to clear the mucous instead of coughing. As I mentioned earlier, coughing irritates the vocal cords and should be avoided.
If You Have to Keep Singing
Excess mucous can sound quite off-putting during a performance. Therefore, it is important to keep your throat clear as you sing. Singing will naturally clear your throat, so make sure to swallow the mucous when you can.
To help avoid the mucous cracking your voice when you are singing, clear it away between phrases by humming (away from the microphone). This might get you through while on stage, but make sure to get some steam into your throat as soon as you can.