Colds, Flus and Other Singer Blues

trees with red leaves (autumn)I noticed yesterday that the trees outside my window have started to turn red and gold. That means (sadly) that colder weather is on its way to Minnesota.

And with lower temperatures come colds, sinus infections, the flu and other illnesses that effect our ability to sing.

I think of being sick as having three stages: the decline (I call this “pre-sick”), the nadir (Crap. I’m sick) and the recovery.

Below are some of the things I use during each of the stages to help prevent or at least reduce the time I spend being sick. (Please remember that I am singer, not a doctor; my comments are not meant to take the place of medical care or advice from a physician. *smile*)

Pre-sick (Uh oh … I don’t feel so good.)

It’s a good idea as a singer to get extremely familiar with your personal symptoms of illness. How do you know you’re getting sick? Are their signs? What are they?

My throat tickles. I suddenly notice my voice is raspier. I start sneezing. These warning signs are an important tool for me; the earlier I can attack the problem, the less likely I am to get really sick.

When I feel “sick” coming on, I frequently take a run of a vitamin supplement (e.g. B vitamin, daily vitamin, Airborne or Emergen-C — not all together! *grin*). Sometimes, this can help head an illness off.

For scratchy-about-to-be-sore throats, my mom’s low-tech remedy of gargling with warm salt water is miraculous! The number of times I have gone to bed thinking I would be sick in the morning to awaken just fine are proof. (Let’s hear it for moms! *smile*)

One of my singing teachers eats raw cloves of garlic when she is getting sick.

I have also recently added nasal irrigation (aka the Neti pot — although I use a syringe) to my pre-sick (and pre-travel!) routine.

Crap. I’m sick.

Sometimes, no matter how hard I work to prevent it, I still get sick. When I feel myself going down and there’s clearly no stopping it, I stop.

I cancel appointments, stay home and stay in bed. As the years go by, I find less and less need to show up for things when I am sick. It is a good idea to cultivate a network of subs. If you can’t do the gig at least you can provide the names of some people who can. The venues (and the subs!) will thank you for it. (Besides, no one wants to watch you sing if you’re miserable.)

At home, I drink lots of fluids and sleep as much as I can. I brush my teeth often. (I don’t know that this has any effect, but it makes me feel better. *smile*) I prefer to take any decongestants, fever reducers and/or cough medicines separately rather than in a multi-symptom medicine. (I feel like I have more control over the dosing and I avoid the drying effects of the alcohol in most multi-symptom meds.)

I have learned that if I stay home and rest the first day or two of an illness I recover much, MUCH faster. (Plus I’m not sharing my illness with the world.)

Crap. I’m sick … and I have to sing.

Cough drops, tea and hot baths are my friends when I’m sick and have to sing.

The goal when we are sick is to keep the lubricating membrane (a.k.a. our mucosa) that lines the vocal tract — the area from the vocal folds down in your larynx to where breath exits the body at the mouth and nose — moist. It is likely swollen and irritated and it does its job — letting things slide around — better when it is well hydrated.

Congestion is a drag for singers. For me, it feels like trying to sing through a burlap bag stuffed with cotton. It is hard to hear myself and my voice doesn’t have any ring (at least not inside where I am listening!).

So if I am really sniffling, sneezing or have a sinus infection, I may take an antihistamine or decongestant, but generally I try to avoid them. One of the side effects of these medicines is dry mouth (and nose and throat); my whole goal when I have to sing while sick is to keep everything moist. Steam from a hot bath or shower before heading out to a gig can help ease congestion without drying me out.

red, yellow and green hard candies on white surfaceSpeaking of keeping things moist, avoid mentholated cough drops. Anything with menthol, “vapor action” or “cooling sensation” is DRYING! Non-mentholated drops (i.e. Luden’s, Ricola and even plain old hard candy) help stimulate the saliva glands and help your mucosa stay moist, keeping your voice happier. (This is true even when you’re not sick. *smile*)

I also avoid alcohol and caffeine when I’m sick. Again, because they cause dehydration.

If I have to sing when I am sick, I take more time to warm up. But, I can’t warm up for too long either. My voice fatigues more quickly when I’m sick. (You must follow the example of Goldilocks, Juuuuusst right.)


I stop taking antihistamines and decongestants as SOON as possible. You stop sniffling because decongestants dry you out. (Dryness = bad for vocal mucosa. Did I say that already? *grin*)

toothbrush on the edge of sinkOnce I start to feel better, I change my sheets and pillowcases and start using a new toothbrush. (Again, I don’t know if this helps, but it makes me feel better.) I also keep drinking lots of water and taking my vitamins.

Most important, I try to ease back into my “regular” schedule. Once we start to feel better, it is easy to rush headlong into our lives to start playing catch up. Resist the temptation to hit the ground running. Again, the less you can do during the three stages of sick, the quicker you’ll recover.


Obviously, our goal is to not get sick in the first place! *smile*

My keys to fending off illness are increased rest and hydration. When I know I have a taxing week (or month *smile*) ahead, I (try to) move up my bedtime, add more fresh fruits and vegetables into my meals and find the time to exercise. (Healthy bodies get sick less often.)

Dressing appropriately for the weather by carrying or wearing a scarf and extra layers.

Remember, what is good for the body is good for the voice.

I kindly remind you that I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice; if you are having persistent voice or health issues, please consult a doctor or speech therapist.


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