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In A Manner Of Speaking

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The two delicate muscles that make up the vocal cords lie within the larynx. During speech, the cords are stretched; outgoing breath, forced between them, vibrates and produces sound. The sound varies with the tension of the cords and the space between them.

"When the cords are overused or misused, causing them to contract too much or too violently, they try to protect themselves by puffing up,'' says Stephen Mitchell, an otolaryngologist and chairman of the Committee on Speech, Voice, and Swallowing Disorders for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. "This can lead to hoarseness or laryngitis.

"Although the voice is the stock in trade of educators, teachers receive little or no instruction in its care and use, what we call voice hygiene,'' Mitchell adds. "Consequently, we see a lot of teachers who have strained their voices and need treatment.''

Voice and throat experts suggest the following regimen for protecting the vocal cords:

Proper Care

  • A relaxed throat will hold up better through hours of talking than a tense one. Full, deep breathing from the abdomen, rather than shallow, upperchest breathing, will help keep the vocal cords from tightening. Similarly, shouting is best done by inhaling deeply, and then re-creating the open-throat feeling one has at the beginning of a yawn.
  • Cold air is irritating to the throat. Breathing through the nose, rather than the mouth, warms air before it hits the vocal cords. The nose also protects the throat by filtering pollution and acting as a humidifier when the air is dry. When a cold or the flu strikes, a decongestant can make breathing through the nose easier, but be aware that the drying effects of the medication will also dry the throat. Drinking lots of water--up to 10 glasses a day--will help keep the vocal cords moist. This is especially important for people who live or work in a dry environment and for those undergoing a bout of hoarseness. Although it may not sound appealing, the water should be at body temperature. Cold water strains the blood vessels in the larynx by forcing them to warm the water.
  • Cough drops are not just for coughs. They're good for moistening the throat anytime.
  • In addition to its well-known consequences, smoking causes severe strain on the vocal cords. Passive exposure to cigarette smoke is also harmful. If the teachers' lounge doesn't have a no-smoking policy, consider spending between-class time somewhere else.
  • Frequent bouts of gastric reflux-- acid indigestion--can cause sore throats and hoarseness as stomach acid is pushed up into the esophagus. A doctor can recommend treatment for the reflux.


  • Lukewarm chicken soup or some other soothing food will ease the discomfort of an irritated throat.
  • Breathing steam for five minutes, three or four times a day, will help a case of hoarseness or laryngitis. It doesn't matter if the steam comes from a vaporizer, cleaned well to get rid of lingering mold; a steamy shower; or a basin of hot water.
  • When laryngitis strikes, stop talking altogether for about two days. If that's not possible, speak softly in a natural voice. Don't whisper--the vocal cords work much harder for a whisper than for normal speech.
  • A dry cough whips the vocal cords mercilessly and makes them swell even more. A cough suppressant is essential for protecting the throat.
  • Alcoholic beverages, which tend to dry out the throat and make laryngitis worse, are best avoided until the illness or soreness passes.
  • For chronic voice problems, see a specialist. Many schools have a speech therapist or speech pathologist on staff who can provide additional advice.

The following voice-care specialists provided the recommendations for this article: Sally Etcheto, a lecturer in music at California State UniversityDominguez Hills; Robert Feder, professor of drama at the University of California-Los Angeles and a member of the Committee on Hearing and Speech Therapy for the State of California; and Mitchell, who is also secretary of the Performing Arts Medicine Association.
Eileen Nechas is a freelance writer who specializes in health topics.

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