Singing With Laryngitis: How to Overcome this Common Issue
When I was younger, my sister won tickets for the two of us to see The Fray. I hadn't been to many concerts, so was pretty excited. However, on the way to the concert it was announced that the lead singer had developed laryngitis and the show was cancelled. This made me wonder if it is possible to sing with laryngitis.
Although singing with laryngitis is not recommended, singers are able to regain their voice if appropriate care is taken. This includes avoiding unnecessary use of their voice, staying hydrated and doing gentle humming exercises throughout the day. Medications can also help if used with caution.
You can find out more about how to sing with laryngitis below, including how and when to perform these vocal exercises and which medications your could consider.
Singing With Laryngitis
If you are attempting to sing with laryngitis, it's a very good idea to understand the condition and how it affects your singing voice.
What is Laryngitis?
Laryngitis is the medical term used to describe inflammation of the larynx. This includes your vocal cords and all the surrounding tissue. There are different levels of inflammation you may experience, but your singing voice will be affected regardless.
The main problem with laryngitis is that inflammation causes swelling of the vocal cords. This makes them thicker and less elastic, making it harder to sing properly. I will explain how this affects your singing (and talking) voice further down.
Laryngitis is usually caused by an infection of some kind, such as a cold, flu, throat infection or tonsillitis. However, it can also be caused by overuse of your voice, such as talking over loud music, talking or singing for too long, straining when you sing or cheering in a crowd.
Laryngitis itself should not cause pain, but you will notice changes to your voice, which I have listed below. If you do have pain, this is most likely from another condition (such as the virus in the upper respiratory tract that caused laryngitis).
- Hoarse voice (most common)
- Deeper voice
- Partial or complete loss of your voice
- Feeling of a lump in your throat
How Laryngitis Affects Your Voice
Laryngitis inhibits the normal function of your vocal cords, which then changes the way you produce sound when you talk and sing. Below are the effects it has on your vocal cords.
- Requires more air pressure to vibrate the vocal cords (to produce sound). This means you need more air to produce sound.
- They cannot be stretched long and thin for higher notes. But the extra thickness makes lower notes easier to reach.
- They may not be able to vibrate continuously. This leads to voice cracks/breaks.
How Long Does it Last?
Laryngitis typically lasts 1-2 weeks, depending on the severity. More severe cases, where people completely lose their voice, may take the full 2 weeks to recover.
In saying that, it is possible to get your normal vocal range back within 3-4 days of the onset of symptoms. This requires gentle exercises, which I will talk about further down.
Keep in mind that symptoms of laryngitis should not last more than 2 weeks. If they do, you should consult your doctor to determine if there is something else going on or if you are prolonging the condition.
Can You Sing With Laryngitis?
Although it is not recommended, it is possible to sing with laryngitis. You just need to be careful about it.
More often than not, vocal rest with regular gentle exercises are enough to give you your full vocal range back and regain control of your breathing. I have outlined these exercises at the end of this article.
For more severe cases, you could consider the use of anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the swelling. This will give the vocal cords more flexibility and make them less likely to crack. However, this should always be a last resort as inflammation is your body's way of healing the area.
Does Singing Make Laryngitis Worse?
If not done correctly, singing will make laryngitis worse. Straining to produce sound when the vocal cords are unable to vibrate means that there is excessive forced being used.
When you strain, your muscles are actually pulling on swollen tissue and the air pressure from the lungs is also putting pressure on this tissue. This makes the tissue (the vocal cords and surrounding structures) prone to further damage, such as tearing.
Further damage causes the body to increase the inflammatory response in that area in an attempt to repair it. Therefore, symptoms of laryngitis are made worse.
It is very important to sing correctly if you are going to attempt to do so when you have laryngitis. The damage mentioned above can lead to structural changes within your larynx, such as scarring, nodules, polyps or even rupture of the vocal cords. These conditions are long-term and usually require surgery.
Should You Sing With Laryngitis?
Singing with Laryngitis is Not Recommended
As I mentioned earlier, singing while your vocal cords are inflamed will increase your chances of further damaging them. It can even lead to structural changes to your vocal cords, such as polyps, nodules or scarring.
The purpose of the inflammation is to bring extra blood flow to your vocal cords. This provides enough nutrients and blood cells to fight viruses and bacteria or heal any damage. It also discourages you from using that body part, giving it a chance to heal.
So inflammation is actually a useful mechanism used by the body.
But forcing yourself to sing when you have laryngitis can prolong the condition further and lead to further damage. This is why, even though you can still sing, it is not recommended.
But There is Hope
However, I know you are probably not reading this article to be told you can't sing. Chances are, you have an audition or performance coming up that you can't cancel and you're wondering how you can sing with this condition. Therefore, I have provided some tips below to help you through this bump in the road.
How to Sing With Laryngitis
With the below tips, you may be able to sing within 24 hours. You will be able to measure your progress during your vocal exercises throughout the day.
Vocal rest does not necessarily mean gluing your lips shut. Complete vocal rest is usually only prescribed to people with severe vocal complications, such as vocal cord haemorrhage or after surgery.
What it does mean is that you should not use your voice if you don't have to. Try to avoid social situations that would require prolonged conversation or trying to talk over loud noises. You can still do the vocal exercises in the next section.
You should also avoid whispering , coughing and clearing your throat (all natural instincts when you have laryngitis). These things are harsh on your vocal cords and will prolong recovery.
Light Vocal Exercises: Humming
5-10 minutes, several times during the day.
There are certain vocal exercises that are more gentle on the vocal cords, making them suitable for an inflamed larynx. The most common are humming exercises and lip trills.
These exercises should be done frequently throughout the day, but for no longer than 10 minutes at a time. Somewhere between 5-10 minutes of exercise is ideal.
In my opinion, humming is the best way to exercise your voice when dealing with laryngitis. It is gentle and easy to do while you multitask.
As you hum, you should work through your vocal range, from the lowest to highest pitch you can reach. The exercise involves sliding your voice up and down through this range (in different segments).
A singer's vocal range typically spans across three octaves (including their falsetto register), so I would recommend spending approximately three minutes on each octave. You can spend less time on each if you only want to do 5 minutes of exercise.
Here are the sounds you will be using for this vocal exercise.
- 'Mmm': Your tongue is positioned low in your mouth.
- 'Nnn': Your tongue is positioned in the middle of your mouth, also touching your front teeth.
- 'Ng' (as in ring): Your tongue is positioned high in your mouth.
These sounds move the tongue into the ideal position for each section of your range (from lowest to highest). This makes the exercise even easier and is therefore more gentle on your voice.
With that in mind, your full set of exercises should look something like this:
- Slide your voice up and down, to an 'mmm' sound, through the lowest octave of your range. Repeat for the first 3 minutes.
- Move to the middle octave of your vocal range. Now slide your voice up and down, to an 'nnn' sound, through this middle octave. Repeat for another 3 minutes.
- Move to the upper octave of your vocal range. Slide your voice up and down, to an 'ng' sound, through this octave for the last 3 minutes. Only go as high as you comfortably can.
You will find most of your upper range is missing at first due to the swelling, so only slide your voice up to your comfortable limit (don't force it!). As you do more exercises throughout the day, you will find this upper range starts to come back.
You may also be able to hit notes that are lower than your normal range. It's find to include these in the exercises.
Drinking plenty of water is another key element to recovering quickly. Your body needs water to repair the damaged tissue around your vocal cords. if you are dehydrated, this tissue will take longer to heal and may dry out.
Dry vocal cords can be prone to damage (small tears, like dry cracked knuckles). This further prolongs laryngitis as the body has more damage to repair.
Vocal Steamer: A Quick and Temporary Fix
After you drink water, it takes approximately 3 hours for this water to hydrate your vocal cords. During this time, you may want to consider a temporary fix for your dehydrated larynx.
Vocal steamers are used by many singers prior to a performance to keep their throat hydrated. They work by producing warm steam for you to inhale. The moist air travels through your airways, coating your vocal cords with moisture.
You can find my recommendation for best vocal steamer here.
Medications should be a last resort when it comes to singing with laryngitis. Although they can make it easier to sing, they may prolong the condition by delaying healing.
Note: only take medication for laryngitis that your doctor has approved.
Anti-inflammatory medication (non-steroidal - aka NSAIDs) can reduce the swelling in your larynx, which makes it easier to sing. Common anti-inflammatories include the following:
- Naproxen sodium
Taking these medications (as directed) has been known to help singers who need a 'quick fix' for a one-off performance. They are not recommended in the long-term because they can cause stomach ulcers and can delay healing.
Vocalzone is a brand of throat pastilles that is very common among singers. They are incredibly effective at soothing a sore throat before your sing (here are some other tips for singing with a sore throat).
I would only recommend these if your case of laryngitis has been caused by an infection (which comes with pain). If you have laryngitis caused by overuse and have no pain, they will not help reduce the swelling in your vocal cords.
You should also be careful when taking anything with menthol. This can dry out your vocal cords.