Singing with a Cold and Sore Throat: Your Ultimate Guide
I know it is not recommended to sing with a cold or sore throat, but I am here to tell you that it can be done. You need to be smart about it and you should avoid it if possible, but sometimes you may feel like you don't have the choice. In this article, you will find everything you need to know to sing with a cold and sore throat.
Singing with a cold and sore throat is not recommended because it can lead to vocal cord damage. However, when absolutely necessary, you should keep yourself well-hydrated, eat healthy, minimise and thin any mucous, rest and soothe your throat, gently warmup your voice and adjust your performance.
I have many tips below which will help you with all of the above recommendations. I have also included some of the reasons why you should avoid singing with a cold.
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How to Sing with a Cold and Sore Throat
Below are 11 ways that you can successfully sing with a cold and sore throat. These are all tips that I have used over the years (when absolutely necessary). Following these strictly has allowed me to sing without damaging my voice and restricting my range. I even find that I can still enjoy my performance.
Drink Plenty of Water
Drink around 1/2 - 1 cup of water every half-hour, starting at least three hours before you sing.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to drink water when you are singing with a cold. Water not only hydrates you, but also helps rid the body of toxins in your blood. This helps you recover more quickly from your cold and can ease the symptoms of a sore throat.
From a singing perspective, hydrating your throat is essential to prevent damage. If you sing when your throat is dry, you are more likely to tear the delicate tissue in your vocal cords. Think of your vocal cords like your knuckles: if they become dry, they are more likely to crack and bleed. This is can then lead to a sore throat (or worsen your sore throat).
In order to stay hydrated, you should be drinking at least eight cups of water throughout the day (about 2-3 drink bottles worth). When you are sick, you may need even more because your body is using the water to fight the virus.
I would recommend around one cup of water every half-hour. Keep in mind that the water then takes three hours to reach the tissue in your vocal cords. So if you need to be singing at 9am (been there before!), you better make sure you start drinking at 6am.
Drinking lots of water can also flush out many of your electrolytes, leaving you depleted. Make sure you incorporate salt (contains sodium and chloride) and potassium (eg. bananas) in your diet.
Drinking coconut water is a great way to hydrate and replenish electrolytes.
Try to stick to bone broth, meat, eggs and vegetables to get all your daily nutrients.
Eating healthy foods will help you recover from your cold and also minimise your symptoms. Healthy foods do not mean weight-loss foods. What I mean is foods that are rich is nutrients and void of unhealthy 'fillers' (ie junk food).
Bone broth is one of my essentials when I have a cold (although I understand it might not be for everyone). This contains many essential nutrients and is like having a nice hot soup when you're sick. It's also great for settling an uneasy stomach.
Other important foods include vegetables and protein (including eggs and red meats). In fact, if you can stick to meat, eggs and vegetables, you will get plenty of the nutrients your body needs. Carbohydrate foods aren't necessarily bad, most just have lower nutritional value and will fill you up quicker (and potentially bloat your stomach).
There are also some foods you should avoid when singing, such as dairy products. Although some of these are healthy, they can affect the mucous in your throat or dehydrate you. Click here for the main foods you should avoid.
Use a Vocal Steamer
Steaming will help to soothe a sore throat, prevent coughing and loosen mucous so that you can clear it from your throat.
Vocal steamers, such as this one on Amazon, are a singer's best friend and can be found at most chemists/pharmacies. On a basic level, you simply add hot water to the steamer and breathe in the steam. They come with an inhaler mask that covers both your mouth and nose, which allows you to get the most out of the steam.
If you don't have a steamer, a hot cup of water will do the same thing. Breathe the steam mainly through your nose and this will coat your airways with moisture and help to keep them hydrated.
If you use boiling water, the steam may be too hot and burn your nose. Try using hot (not boiling) water instead or use your steamer as per the instructions.
Just keep in mind that a steamer is not going to thoroughly hydrate your throat. It is a temporary 'quick fix' that can provide relief leading up to a performance, but should never replace drinking water.
If you're interested in how steamer works, take a look at this article.
Unblock Your Nose
Unblock your nose with menthol or eucalyptus steam. Otherwise, you could also try squats or running up and down the stairs.
One of the hardest things about singing with a cold is becoming congested. It is then incredibly hard to clear congestion if your nose is blocked. Congestion then leads to nasality in your voice (take a look at this article on removing nasal tone).
There are two ways I clear my nose when I have a cold. First, you can try using vapours such as menthol or eucalyptus. You can add drops of any of these to a vocal steamer (or hot cup of water) to breathe it in through your nose. Some steamers, such as the Vicks Personal Steamer (Amazon), are designed with the option to add menthol scent pads to the steam.
Another unusual method I use is altitude. You may have noticed that your ears pop when driving down a hill or taking off in a plane. This is because a change in altitude causes a change in air pressure. The build-up of pressure in your nasal cavity (behind your nose) is usually enough to unblock it.
I find that doing a number of squats (up to 20 in a row) is enough to unblock my nose, but going up and down a flight of stairs will also work. Between this and vapour inhalants, you should be able to clear your nose enough to swallow the mucous (gross, I know).
Keep mucous thin and try to swallow it instead of blowing coughing and blowing your nose.
The last thing you want when singing is for mucous to come out your nose or crack in your throat. Therefore, it is important to keep your nose and throat clear of mucous leading up to the performance.
Try to swallow as much as you can. I know this sounds disgusting, but blowing your nose too frequently will give you a sore cherry nose and coughing it up can be damaging to your throat.
In order to keep your mucous thin and loose, stay as hydrated as you can and eat the right foods (see above). When you can, keep your head tilted back to allow the mucous from your nose to run to the back of your throat (sleeping on your back will help with this).
When the mucous in your throat is thin, it should come loose easily when you talk or hum. If you need to, try gently clearing your throat so you can then swallow it.
Instead of coughing and damaging your vocal cords, try treating the cause of your cough instead.
Coughing is a natural response to a cold. It is your body's normal response to a mucous build-up or a dry 'tickle' throat. However, when you cough, your vocal cords slam together, causing damage over time.
For this reason, try to avoid coughing when you can. Instead, target the cause of the coughing. For a mucous build-up, minimise mucous using the methods mentioned above. For a dry throat, stay hydrated by drinking water and using a vocal steamer.
As I mentioned earlier, if you feel the urge to cough to bring up mucous, try swallowing, humming (slide your pitch up and down to clear most of it), or gently clearing your throat (only when necessary).
For more information regarding a singer's cough, take a look at this article.
Soothe Your Throat
Eating or drinking honey can help soothe and heal your sore throat. Otherwise natural lozenges, such as Vocalzone pastilles, can also help.
There are many remedies out there for a cold and sore throat, but I stick by honey as one of the best I have tried. I stick to quality honey (we use raw organic local honey). This ensures that all the benefits of the honey haven't been destroyed through over-processing.
I find some cold drops and other pharmaceuticals have more of a 'bandaid' affect. They can make you feel great, but don't always contribute to getting you better. Some can also can dry your throat out or lead to excess mucous production.
I usually have a heaped teaspoon of honey in my tea (fellow singers and musicians usually find my honey tea addiction amusing). However, if you prefer, you can swallow it straight from the spoon or make a nice ginger/honey/lemon drink out of it.
Honey contains antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and wound-healing properties. These combined will not only soothe your sore throat, but help kill the germs and heal any damage in your throat.
If you prefer lozenges, Vocalzone (Amazon.com) is a big name for throat pastilles in the singing industry. This company has been producing throat pastilles for singers for over 100 years and uses various natural ingredients such as liquorice, honey, menthol, peppermint oil, etc in their lozenges.
Just keep in mind that any lozenge will also contain other ingredients such as preservatives, seed oils and sugars. Sourcing your own unprocessed ingredients will always guarantee you get the most health benefits from the product.
Rest Your Voice
Avoid singing/talking when you can, but make sure to hum leading up to your performance to clear and warm your throat.
When you can, try to rest your voice. This means talking and singing only when necessary. It also means avoiding coughing and excess clearing of your throat (as I mentioned before).
Many people believe resting their voice means that they should then whisper when talking. This is also not a good idea. Whispering introduces more airflow through the vocal cords, drying them out further, and encourages poor singing technique.
Instead, simply talk or sing softly when needed. This article explains more about whispering vs. talking/singing quietly.
One thing you should do is hum while waiting for your performance. This is a gentle way to keep your throat clear and warm so that you don't start your song with a cracking voice or restricted vocal cords.
Warmup Your Voice
Use gentle warmups to maintain your vocal range and smooth out parts of your voice affected by your cold.
Although resting your voice is important, warming up your voice is equally as important. This article goes into some detail as to why we need to warm-up our voices and how to protect it when you can't.
Warmups will ultimately help you keep your vocal range, which can become restricted when you have a cold. It will also smooth over any transitions that have become strained or sporadic.
The three vocal warmups I find helpful are scales, puppy dog whimpers and vocal slides. You can learn more about these exercises here. You will notice that you run out of breath more easily when you have a cold, so you might also benefit from the breath-control exercises in that link.
The key thing to remember is that you should do these exercises gently. Don't try to strain your chest voice. Use head voice when you need to. You are still stretching and warming up the muscles, regardless of whether or not you power out the notes.
Simplify Your Performance
Know your limitations. It is better to be great at a moderately impressive vocal line than to fail at an impressively difficult vocal line.
There's nothing more off-putting in a performance than a when a singer tries to do too many impressive vocals and doesn't get any of them right. Delivering a simplified yet perfect melody is much better than failing miserably at a harder vocal line.
Not getting the right notes or flexibility in your voice can lower your confidence on stage, and ultimately affect your performance (here are some tips to boosting your confidence). So if you keep it simpler, you will deliver an amazing performance and feel great about it.
This all starts with knowing your limitations. Try singing the song through and work out what parts are most affected by your cold. You may still be able to hit high notes or sing long notes, but whatever you can't fix with some gentle warmups, you need to simplify.
For example, I found that one song I sang with a cold had many high vocal improvisations. I realised that my voice could only manage a few impressive high notes so I brought the rest down to mid-range (still keeping the embellishments). Overall, this meant I could still wow the audience with a little bit of my higher range, but focussing more on the flexibility of my voice mid-range.
If you have any dance moves, see if you can simplify these as well. Perhaps you can stop and use hand movements when focussing on harder vocal lines. This is a well-known tip used by many singers who sing and dance (click here to learn how to sing while dancing).
Use the Microphone to Your Advantage
The microphone is your friend. Normally, singers will still give their all to allow the sound desk to have the most flexibility with the sound mix. However, the microphone will still pick up your voice if you sing a little bit softer.
For the higher notes that require you to project, try using more nasal tone to protect your voice (read this article on how to sing louder in head voice). You can also bring the microphone closer (within reason) to pick up more of your voice.
Take a look at this article for ways to use the microphone to your advantage during a performance to help you sing softer and still sound great.
Overall, if you let the sound desk know that you are pulling back your voice slightly to protect it, they can compensate by increasing the microphone's volume or adding accessories to reduce background noise.
Is it Bad to Sing with a Sore Throat?
Overall, singing with a cold or sore throat is bad for your voice. Without the proper care, you can damage your voice and prolong your illness. Therefore, if you can get out of singing, this is going to be the best thing for your long-term vocal career.
However, I understand that you cannot always get out of a gig, so singing with a cold is not going to guarantee damage to your vocal cords. Stick to the suggestions above and you will minimise your risk by far.
Some things you need to look out for are vocal fatigue, scarring, polyps, nodules, cysts and vocal cord rupture. These are all physical changes to your vocal cords caused by long-term irritation and damage. Some of these may even be permanent, changing your voice forever.
For this reason, only sing with a cold or sore throat when absolutely necessary.