Singing With a Cold
by Anthony Jahn, M.D.
It’s most singers’ nightmare. Two days before an important engagement, it begins: the stuffy, itchy nose; the headache; and the congestion. A cold is on its way, and your engagement cannot be canceled. You know the cold will usually run its course in a week—but you must sing now, and make the best of it. What to do?
Short of canceling (a wise choice, if it is an option), you can do several things to make the course of your infection shorter and less severe, and lessen its impact on your voice.
Colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Normally transmitted by physical contact or the aerosol droplets of a sneeze, these viruses can survive outside of the body for up to 72 hours—you don’t need to be infected in real time by someone with a cold.
As the name implies, rhinoviruses have an affinity for your nose. Typically, they begin the infection by attaching themselves to the mucous membrane in your nasal passages. There, they start to multiply and the clinical symptoms begin. Rhinitis progresses to nasal congestion, postnasal drip, then laryngitis, cough, and possibly, bronchitis.
What can you do once the viruses have landed?
Everyone has his or her favorite routine for dealing with a cold. I would like to give you some of mine, and, if the show must go on, some tips on singing with a cold.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that zinc can help. Zinc gluconate tablets, or nasal swabs (such as Zicam), when wiped over the infected mucosa, can be beneficial. Zinc not only shortens the duration of the cold, it also lessens the severity of the symptoms, and (attention choral singers) shortens the period during which you are contagious. Zinc seems to work only once the cold has begun, however—it has no preventive effect, so you don’t need to take daily zinc prophylactically.
If your nose is not too congested, you should begin (or increase) using saline nasal spray or irrigations. You can find many manufactured solutions at the drug store, but I recommend a Neti pot with lukewarm saline that you make up yourself. Why? It’s cheaper and easier.
Unlike Zinc, vitamin C does have some preventive effect. Whether you take vitamin C preventively or not, you should increase your intake once the cold has started. I recommend 4,000 mg in divided doses daily, though some physicians recommend even more. Since vitamin C is water soluble, you won’t poison yourself with excessive amounts—it is simply excreted in the urine. Side effects however may include mild diarrhea and heartburn.
Echinacea and goldenseal are two herbs often recommended for treatment of a cold. Again, you should take them once you have a cold. Whatever benefit they may confer, they do not prevent inoculation of the virus.
OK, you’ve done all you can, yet the cold continues. What to do, what to avoid?
As much as possible, avoid antihistamines. Antihistamines, especially the proprietary mixtures such as DayQuil or NyQuil, are very drying and make phonation difficult. Decongestants such as Sudafed, on the other hand, are a bit drying, but the benefit may outweigh the negative effect. Inhaling warm steam before the performance is helpful, perhaps with a drop or two of eucalyptus oil in the pot. This soothes the upper airway and loosens sticky mucus.
From the vocal point of view, your difficulties will be on the top and in the passaggio. Swelling and thick mucus on the vocal folds affect the top, and irritation of the pharynx affects the passaggio. This may require you to push, to muscle the voice more than usual. Support may also be affected, especially if you have chest congestion and are dealing with a cough.
When singing with a cold, it is important to be aware of support, and also to realize that you may temporarily need to use suboptimal technique to get the voice out. As soon as the cold passes, conscientiously revert to your good technique, opening the pharynx, lowering the larynx, and anchoring the voice in the lower abdomen and pelvis. In other words, do whatever is necessary to get the voice out, but as soon as possible, return to your normal good technique, otherwise your temporary compensation may itself become a problem.
Many singers think they “sound better” with a cold. They don’t. When you have a cold, more sound is absorbed into the swollen tissues of the upper airway, so to your ears the voice (conducted directly through the body) sounds louder. This conducted sound favors lower frequencies (with longer waves), so the sound seems not only louder, but also deeper. The voice coming out of your mouth, however, is not what you hear inside, so don’t be deceived.
Perhaps most importantly, you must rest your voice after your ordeal. You can get through one or two performances with a cold perhaps, but continued singing while impaired can cause damage.
Norman Punt, the English laryngologist, once quipped that the difference between a professional singer and an amateur is that the professional can sing even when he doesn’t want to, and the amateur can’t, even when he does. The singer with a cold exemplifies this aphorism. None of this advice will lead to a great performance, but it can be an adequate one.
Anthony Jahn M.D., noted author and professor of clinical otolaryngology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has offices in New York and New Jersey. His book, The Care of the Professional Voice, now in its second printing, is available on the CS website.
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