Medical Minute: Looking at the pandemic’s impact on our voices

From the Baylor College of Medicine

During the pandemic, masks have protected us and those around us from the spread of COVID-19; however, they may have also had an impact on our voices and vocal cords. Sarah Blumhardt, a speech pathologist in the Bobby R. Alford Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, says that many people have overextended their voices trying to speak louder to be heard while wearing a mask.

“The increased effort to talk can lead to vocal fatigue and hoarseness for some people,” Blumhardt said. “They are engaging muscles in their throat more than they normally would to talk.”

Signs of vocal fatigue:

  • Persistent throat discomfort or tension
  • Change in vocal pitch or volume
  • Loss of voice by the end of the day

According to Blumhardt, this effect is seen most in people who use their voices for extended periods throughout the day while masked. Some people also may overextend their voices on video or phone calls, using more vocal effort than they would in a face-to-face conversation. Blumhardt also has seen a rise in cases of people with vocal issues after having COVID-19, due to chronic coughing or even intubation.

“For some people, tightening throat muscles while speaking can become habitual,” Blumhardt said. “I teach people how to get their muscles to relax and to use their voice in a more efficient and healthy way.”

She works with her patients on techniques to relax the throat and maximize breath support to help lighten the vocal load. She also encourages people who use their voice for long periods of time to take “vocal naps” – five minutes of silence to rest the voice – throughout the day. Good hydration also can help preserve your voice.

“The voice is like a battery,” Blumhardt said. “It only has so long before it wears out.”

Other tips to protect your voice:

  • Avoid speaking loudly (for example: speaking over background noise in a loud restaurant) for long periods of time
  • Don’t smoke and avoid excess amounts of caffeine or alcohol, which can dry out the vocal folds
  • Do neck stretches to reduce excess muscle tension

Anyone experiencing a change in voice that lasts longer than two weeks should see a laryngologist, an ENT doctor who specializes in voice problems.

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