Dear Doctor Jahn,
Is there any way to protect the voice in smoky bars? You see, I often perform in smoky places such as bars. I was wondering, what steps I can take to protect my voice, and to help me perform my best in such smoky situations?
The problem you describe used to be much more common before the increasingly universal smoking ban was introduced in the North America, as well as in many parts of Europe. Nonetheless, smoking continues, often in confined and poorly ventilated venues.
Most singers who believe they are “allergic to tobacco” are not so much allergic as just irritated in their upper respiratory tract from inhaled second-hand smoke. Short of posting a prominent “Do Not Smoke” sign, there are several measures you can take to reduce any irritation or damage to the voice from smoky performing environments.
First, try to breathe through your nose as much as possible. Obviously when you sing or speak, you will preferentially inhale through your mouth, so, unless you need to mingle with the customers, try to limit your non-singing vocal activities. If you have a quieter dressing room where you can retire between sets, do so—and while there, drink some water!
Second, use a saline nasal spray frequently between sets. This moisturizes the nasal lining and helps trap irritating particles in the nasal mucus, before they reach your larynx. Next, stay well hydrated: drink lots of water to moisturize your pharyngeal and laryngeal mucous membranes; this also helps to clear out inhaled debris. Limit your alcohol intake, since alcohol dehydrates you and, along with loud social speaking and singing, increases possible damage to the throat (have you ever been to a quiet bar?).
Finally, you may consider inhaling some steam at the end of your evening, either from a vaporizer, or as part of a long hot shower. This again wets the mucous membranes, and allows the little hairs (cilia) to work more effectively to clear out any inhaled debris.
And, it goes without saying: don’t hang out at the stage door with the smokers!
-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.
Dr. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a sub-specialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. He holds academic appointments at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Westminster Choir College in Princeton. He is Medical Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and former Director of Medical Services at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Dr. Jahn has published several books for vocalists, including “Vocal Heath for Singers” (Singdaptive) and “The Singer’s Guide to Complete Health” (Oxford University Press).