By Ashley FitzSimmons-Olsen, M.S., CCC-SLP, Special FBA Contributor

Winter is upon us, bringing with it cold weather and busy schedules. Winter also brings an increase in illness, which can interfere with our normal routines. In the midst of a particularly brutal viral season, fitness instructors could be faced with the challenge of getting sick. When an upper respiratory illness gives you a scratchy throat, excess mucus, and even laryngitis, which can linger past the period of acute illness, you’ll need to take special care of your voice to avoid long-term vocal strain and damage.

The good news is that there are many simple tactics you can use to protect your voice if you get sick. Read on for some key strategies to address the most common symptoms of illness that impact your voice.

  • Dehydration: It’s always important to drink plenty of water, but even more so when you’re sick.  If you’re experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, fever, or excess mucus production, your body is losing fluids faster than they’re being replenished. It’s also likely that you aren’t in your normal nutrition and hydration routine when you’re ill, so a conscious effort must be made to ensure you’re getting the hydration and electrolytes your body needs. In addition to fighting off illness throughout your body, drinking plenty of water will help to keep your vocal folds hydrated and pliable. Although the water you drink does not touch the vocal folds, it will reach this tissue as it systemically hydrates your body. This reduces inflammation, soothes a scratchy throat, and helps thin out mucus. You can also provide your vocal folds and nasal passages with a quick burst of topical hydration by using a humidifier or nebulizer. This combination of systemic hydration through drinking water and topical hydration through steaming should help ease some discomfort.
  • Excess mucus: Mucus is a defensive mechanism in the body that protects tissue and traps irritants and infectious agents, but overproduction of mucus can be frustrating and uncomfortable. Your instinct may be to clear your throat to loosen the gunk, but this is actually counter-productive. Throat clearing causes the delicate vocal folds to slam together, which can make inflammation worse and cause the body to produce more mucus in response: it’s a vicious cycle. Instead of clearing your throat, try sipping water and swallowing hard to clear some of the mucus. As previously mentioned, drinking plenty of water will help to thin the mucus, decrease the feeling of gunk in your throat, and decrease irritation. 
  • Home remedies: There are many products on the market specifically for upper respiratory symptom care, but it’s important to choose those products wisely. Lozenges are a good way to ease discomfort from a scratchy throat, but you’ll want to avoid cough drops or lozenges containing menthol, as this ingredient actually dries out your throat and may ultimately cause further irritation. Instead, reach for glycerin-based lozenges to soothe discomfort and decrease the urge to cough and clear your throat. Grether’s Pastilles are a favorite. Warm drinks can also help soothe discomfort from a scratchy throat. Be sure to choose teas or other drinks without caffeine. Caffeine is dehydrating, so be extra conscious of this when you’re ill. Again, the warm beverages you’re sipping do not directly contact the vocal folds, but they can be a comforting way to consume fluids and ease symptoms. 
  • Rest: Finally, it’s critical that you rest your voice when you’re sick, or when your voice feels tired and strained. Pushing through vocal fatigue and strain can cause long-term damage and unhealthy patterns of voice use. When the vocal folds are inflamed, they don’t vibrate the same way that they do in a healthy state. This means that we aren’t able to produce or project our voice the same way we normally do, resulting in hoarseness or loss of voice (laryngitis). The best way to remedy this is vocal rest, meaning you do not speak. This is difficult when it’s not part of your normal routine, but strategies like writing to communicate when face-to-face and sending text messages instead of making phone calls are helpful in facilitating vocal rest. Also, do not whisper. This is not vocal rest! When whispering, the laryngeal muscles are still straining to compensate, so this tactic is counter-productive.

If you’ve lost your voice due to illness, you should start to see the symptoms resolve after approximately 1-2 weeks. If you’re still experiencing vocal strain or hoarseness after 2 weeks, you’ll want to contact your doctor. They may recommend a referral to an otolaryngologist, otherwise known as an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT), to investigate the cause of lingering symptoms.

When you’re able to return to teaching classes, your voice will continue to need some extra care. Gentle vocal warm-up and cool-down exercises are effective ways to build your vocal stamina after an illness. You certainly wouldn’t return to normal exercise after a muscle strain without making some accommodations and thoroughly warming up and cooling down the injured muscle; the same is true for your voice! Spend at least 5-10 minutes prior to beginning your classes and immediately after finishing to warm up and cool down your voice using gentle humming from low to high and high to low pitch, or humming your favorite tune. You can also buzz your lips or trill your tongue while sliding your voice up and down scales. Be sure you aren’t straining your voice to hum a pitch that is higher or lower than your comfortable vocal range. Hopefully, this is a strategy you’ll continue to use even when you aren’t in recovery from an illness!

While illness is frustrating, it doesn’t need to have a long-term impact on your vocal health. Taking these simple steps to protect your voice when you’re sick and after you’ve recovered will benefit your vocal health in the long run and keep you at the head of the class for years to come.

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Ashley FitzSimmons-Olsen, M.S., CCC-SLP worked professionally as a performer and taught theater and dance, and is now a licensed, certified speech-language pathologist, having worked in a variety of settings as a speech-language pathologist treating communication disorders across the lifespan.

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