Have I Messed Up My Voice?

Duo singers and doctor

Dear Dr. Jahn,

I’ve been sick for a long time – first with a sore throat followed by an infection. Then, I suffered with allergies and now I’m sick again! I tried singing earlier today and it sounded really bad – do you think I have messed up my voice? How would I know if I have done any permanent damage?


Dear Rosa,

You seem to be asking two questions. First, why are you sick all the time? And then, does singing while you are sick damage your voice? Your two “illnesses”, the sore throat and then the allergies, may be connected or separate from each other.

Sore throats can result from an infection, either viral or bacterial. These occur after exposure to an infectious agent (bacterium or virus), but if they occur frequently, you need to look to your immune system. Are you getting enough good food, rest and exercise? Are you under chronic physical and psychological stress? All of these predispose you to getting frequent infections. For most bugs, it takes two to tango: the bug and your weakened immune system. While you may not be able to predict or limit your exposure to infection, taking care of your general health and maintaining a strong immune system is entirely within your control!

Allergies are not a sign of a weak immune system, rather of an immune system that is overreacting to the wrong things. This is something that you can address by finding out what you might be allergic to, avoiding exposure (if it is cats, then keep your cat out of the bedroom), and taking appropriate medications to minimize your allergy symptoms.

And here is where the two conditions come together: allergic symptoms can stress your body and make you more vulnerable to infections. Your body may be dealing with two crises at the same time, an inflammatory response to the allergen as well as to the infectious agent. Also consider that if allergies block your nose, you may breathe through your mouth more, inviting bugs to take up residence in your pharynx.

Now, your voice: When you are sick, either with allergy or infection, it will impair your singing and change how you use your vocal apparatus to produce your voice. This compensatory behavior usually stops once your vocal tract is healthy again. It may however persist, as a new bad habit, and now the compensation becomes the disease. 

So, after you are healthy again and your voice is not, visit your teacher and do a thorough checkup on your voice, resetting your singing technique to its pre-illness norm. If your voice does not recover between episodes of sickness, you will need to see an ear, nose and throat doctor who specializes in the voice to make sure that there has been no structural damage to your larynx.

-Anthony F. Jahn, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)

This discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice that you should obtain from your own physician.

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