Singing When You're Sick
For the first time since I was sixteen (when I was too young and dumb to appreciate it) I went on a vacation to Europe, specifically Paris, Tuscany and Rome. It was crazy, wonderful, and inspiring, but halfway through the trip I was laid low by the worst chest cold I’d had since I can remember, which ravaged my vocal cords and left me with less than a whisper for several days. It has now been almost three weeks and I’m just beginning to be able to croak out a couple of notes.
I’ve heard that Frank Sinatra would fall into a deep depression whenever he got sick and couldn't sing. Me, I just get thoroughly pissed off. Not being able to sing is like temporarily losing my left pinkie: I can manage without it, but I don’t feel whole. Plus, it takes awhile to build up vocal strength, and regaining that after an illness, especially a longer one like mine, takes more than a couple of days. So laryngitis and dealing with colds is on my mind--also, you may also want to read my article that includes some cold prevention tips and remedies.
A few thoughts:
• Many singers have asked me if they should still sing when they are sick. I had a voice coach who told me that unless you have strep throat you should do your warm ups, but I think that’s insane. If it hurts to sing you should probably rest your voice if you can. If what you have is mild allergies or a head cold that is sitting in your nose and not your throat, then you can probably sing through it. It’s when the cold has irritated your cords that you could further the irritation by singing.
• If you’re sick and have a gig or rehearsal that night and the show must go on: rest your voice, drink fluids, inhale steam, hum. Unless you are really sick, the adrenaline of performing often will knock out most your cold symptoms for the duration of the gig. Take natural anti-inflammatories like turmeric and ginger. I've heard that rubbing Preparation H on your adams apple can help, since it shrinks tissue and supposedly can help to shrink some of the inflammation in your larynx. The last voice doctor I asked about this method debunked this method, saying that the cartilage protecting your larynx will prevent the Preparation H from having any effect.
• I'm not a fan of steroids, but if you are really sick and have a big show coming up, Prednisone can be prescribed to reduce the swelling. Most people get speedy from Prednisone. It's strong stuff with many potential side effects, but if you're desperate it will help.
• What do the famous singers do when they get sick and have a huge concert that night? Some get steroids shot right into their vocal cords. (2014 rebuttal: a smart singer friend in LA told me this years ago. This year a doctor at the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic told me nope, the shot goes in one's rear end.) This reduces the swelling enough to get them through the show, but the next day there’s a slap-back effect and they lose their voice for the day. I’ve been told by someone in his inner circle that Marilyn Manson used to book his tours as a series of three days on and one day off: He’d scream through the first two days of shows, lose his voice and get a steroid shot to make it through the third day, then lose his voice the fourth day and wait for it to come back. Then the cycle would start again. This is not a plan I’d recommend!
• What about tea, honey and lemon? Honey is soothing. Citrus will dry your vocal cords. So will tea, though not as much as citrus. Theoretically, if your throat is full of crud and you figure out the right cocktail of tea and lemon that dries it out but doesn’t overly dry it, it could help. But it’s the steam in tea that really can soothe. I’d vote for herbal tea and honey just to be safe.
• Remember that the adrenaline of performing will often knock out most of your symptoms for the duration of the show. That's the up side of stage nerves!
When your voice is starting to return:
• Breathe, breathe, breathe. We all get pooped and breathe more shallowly when we’re sick, so the first thing to get back are those good, full singer’s breaths.
• Go slow. Your vocal cords have been roughed up for a chunk of time and probably are still tender. Start with easy warm ups and songs.
If you, too, have a cold, you have my sympathy. No one likes getting a cold, but singers are hit especially hard. Let’s all get and stay healthy, then let’s make a vow to wash our hands more and cover our mouths when coughing and sneezing to reduce the spread of germs. It'll help reduce the amount of grouchy sick singers pacing the earth, waiting for their voices to return.