Tips for vocal health

Hi, Alice!

I'm a singer and I was wondering if you had any good tips for proper vocal health. Things like: what foods to stay away from, vocal strains to avoid, and good habits to get into, etc.


Dear Reader,

Questions like this are music to an otolaryngologist's ears (otolaryngologist is the official name for an ear, nose and throat specialist). You've taken a great step by looking into ways of keeping your voice healthy, rather than waiting until something goes wrong before looking for help. Luckily, there are many things you can do, ranging from the foods and drinks you consume to how you physically take care of your body, to make sure your voice stays golden. 

There are a few signs that may indicate that your voice isn’t in its best condition. You might notice:

  • Hoarseness or raspiness when you speak
  • An inability to hit high notes when you sing
  • A deeper-sounding voice than usual
  • A raw, itchy, sore, or strained throat
  • Difficulty speaking
  • A need to repeatedly clear your throat

A strained voice could stem from a number of causes, such as:

  • An upper respiratory infection
  • Acid reflux
  • Overuse or misuse of vocal cords
  • Larynx cancer
  • A neurological condition such as vocal fold paralysis

Thankfully, symptoms associated with overuse or misuse of vocal cords may only last for a short period of time, allowing you to return to singing without any discomfort. However, if you continue to notice that your voice doesn’t sound healthy, it might be beneficial to speak with an otolaryngologist to get a specific diagnosis. Otolaryngologists can also refer you to a speech-language pathologist — a professional who can help in improving how you use your voice — if needed.

Here are some more recommended steps to ensure that your voice stays in shape:

  • Don't dry out: Both caffeine and alcohol make you urinate more frequently, meaning the body loses water, and subsequently causes your voice to dry out. Alcohol can also act as an irritant to the protective mucous membranes that line your throat. Surprisingly, this also includes limiting the use of mouthwashes that contain alcohol; it is suggested that you do not use mouthwashes with over 25 percent alcohol. Humidity can also play a role in dehydration. Generally speaking, an environment with a humidity level of around 30 percent is said to be optimal in ensuring that your voice does not dry out.
  • Spice isn't always nice: Eating spicy foods can lead to acid reflux, meaning stomach acid rises up your esophagus and into the throat, which can damage your voice. For some people, foods that are high in fat or contain mint can also cause reflux, so you may want to be wary of these foods as well.
  • Gain with whole grains: …as well as fruits, and vegetables. All three of these types of foods contain plenty of vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E that keep your body and throat healthy.
  • Keep it down, no hoarse-ing around: Try to avoid yelling or straining your voice in loud places. If you need to amplify your voice, instead consider using a microphone. You might also whisper as little as possible, because that can also strain your voice. When singing, it is recommended that you stay in a pitch that feels comfortable, as going too far out of your vocal range can cause damage. If your voice becomes hoarse, try to speak as little as possible. For tips on how to get your voice back if this occurs, you can check out I lost my voice — Now what? in the Go Ask Alice! archives.
  • Use your hands, not your neck: Avoid cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder when talking. Holding the phone like this for an extended period of time can cause tension in the neck, which then has an effect on your vocal chords and throat.
  • Movin' on up (and down): Start every practice with warm-up scales that gradually move your voice up and down. Pentatonic scales (that is, scales that have five notes) are usually best for this exercise. It's also a good idea to exercise your body regularly, which can improve your posture as well as tone your muscles and increase your stamina.
  • Breathe easy: How you breathe plays a huge role in your vocal health. Consider taking deep breaths when you speak or sing to avoid relying on your throat alone as this will reduce strain. Breathing through your nose rather than your mouth also allows air to moisten and grow warmer, making it easier for your lungs to handle. It may also be helpful to avoid behaviors such as smoking that can damage the respiratory system.

Your attention to vocal health likely means that you will be quick to address any concerns that arise in the future, providing protection for your pipes for years to come! Taking measures to promote vocal hygiene (including seeing an otolaryngologist when your voice sounds or feels of) is an excellent step in making sure that you can sing your best.

Sing it loud (just not too loud) and sing it proud,

Last updated Oct 28, 2022
Originally published Mar 07, 2008

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