Snot, Steam and Singing
No one likes colds. They suck, although they can provide a good excuse to lie immobile on the sofa and catch up on the TV programmes you never get chance to watch - like Nashville, or Neighbours for example. Before I get caught up in the idea of a 24 hour fantasy Neighbours marathon, let me explain the purpose of this post. All voices are important - if you've ever lost yours you will know how irritating (and for singers) how scary this can be. When you are beseiged by a cold, your voice is in a vunerable state and the way in which we treat it when it's fragile will have a big impact on how quickly it recovers and it's health going forward. Read on for some no-nonsense advice on what will help and what will hinder.
Sticking Stuff Up Your Nose
There are huge amounts of products on the market that contain some form of menthol oil that claim to clear congestion. Unfortunately there is no evidence that this is actually the case. What menthol does do is give a “cooling “ effect that can fool you into thinking that you’re breathing more easily. While it doesn’t actually open the airways it does trigger receptors that make you think that it does, so we are essentially getting a placebo effect from it. While this all sounds pretty harmless, some studies suggest that menthol can actually increase mucus production and cause inflammation of the delicate membranes of the upper respiratory system.
What can have a genuine benefit on clearing gunge without any negative effects is good old saline. It can help to thin mucus and makes for a really satisfying nose blow. Sterimar nasal spray has a really efficient delivery system and is a good option for use throughout the day. A slightly more hardcore option is to go for a nasal irrigation bottle like Neilmed. Simply dissolve a sachet, stick it up your nose and squeeze. It’s amazing what comes out.
Cold and Flu Remedies
There are huge ranges of products on the market, which can alleviate the symptoms of a cold. These products will generally contain paracetamol, a decongestant and an antihistamine. Decongestants work by narrowing the blood vessels in the lining of the nose and reducing the feeling of congestion. They also reduce mucus production. Antihistamines work by blocking histamine receptors (responsible for the production of allergic symptoms like a runny nose) and reducing production of mucus. Notice a recurrent theme?
Reducing the production of mucus seems like a cause for celebration and if you’re desperate for a good nights sleep or you have a ton of work to get through, I have to agree. For us singers however, it’s not without complications. As annoying as excessive mucus is, a thin, viscous coating is essential to lubricate the voice. If you absolutely feel like you will die if you don’t dose yourself up, you can counter the effects to some degree with…
Lovely steam. Innocuous yet supremely effective! Before I continue championing this marvelous vapor, I shall just say a more general note about hydration. There is a lot of water in snot. Like a lot. So it stands to reason that if your body is busily producing masses of the stuff, you might want to up your fluid intake a bit to help vital parts of your body (like your vocal folds) to stay moist. When a more direct approach is needed (no- drinking water does not directly hydrate your folds, you would choke-eye roll) crack on with the steam. In addition to keeping the voice moist, steaming can help reduce swelling on the folds and is generally a good habit for singers to get into even when healthy. You really don’t need to buy a steamer but having something with a facemask feels somehow more medicinal and proper. If you are now wondering whether you should put something in the water like menthol for instance, go back to the top of the page, read the second paragraph again and give yourself a taking to.
On a cautionary note, do make sure you treat a full steamer in the same way that you would treat a very hot cup of tea and don’t forget they have holes in the top. I once checked my watch while holding my freshly boiled steaming cup. In the interests of preventing serious injury I raced straight for the cold tap while stripping away clothing. This resulted in me standing topless at my kitchen sink, throwing water onto my naked chest. I live in London and my house is overlooked. I haven’t been able to look my neighbor in the eye since. Think on.
As you will see from the artly framed photograph, the singers cold survival kit does indeed include Elizabeth Arden 8 Hour Cream. No one wants a singer with a flakey nose.