The pandemic’s impact on our voices

During the pandemic, masks have protected us and those around us from the spread of COVID-19; however, they may have also had an impact on our voices and vocal cords. Sarah Blumhardt, a speech pathologist in the Bobby R. Alford Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, says that many people have overextended their voices trying to speak louder to be heard while wearing a mask.

“The increased effort to talk can lead to vocal fatigue and hoarseness for some people,” Blumhardt said. “They are engaging muscles in their throat more than they normally would to talk.”

A person sitting in front of a laptop, talking and gesturing while on an online video call.According to Blumhardt, this effect is seen most in people who use their voices for extended periods throughout the day while masked. Some people may also overextend their voices on Zoom or phone calls, using more vocal effort than they would in a face-to-face conversation.

Signs of vocal fatigue include persistent throat discomfort or tension, change in vocal pitch or volume and loss of voice by the end of the day. Blumhardt also has seen a rise in cases of people with vocal issues after having COVID-19, due to chronic coughing or even intubation.

Blumhardt recommends that people experiencing voice issues see an ENT specialist to first determine if an underlying medical issue is causing vocal fatigue or hoarseness. Once medical problems are ruled out or resolved, a speech pathologist can focus on finding a behavioral solution.

“For some people, tightening throat muscles while speaking can become habitual,” Blumhardt said. “I teach people how to get their muscles to relax and to use their voice in a more efficient and healthy way.”

She works with her patients on techniques to relax the throat and maximize breath support to help lighten the vocal load. She also encourages people who use their voice for long periods of time to take “vocal naps” – five minutes of silence to rest the voice – throughout the day. Good hydration also can help preserve your voice.

“The voice is like a battery,” Blumhardt said. “It only has so long before it wears out.”

Speech therapy also can be beneficial for patients who have a chronic cough or who clear their throats frequently.

“Your larynx can get stuck in the habit of coughing or clearing your throat,” Blumhardt said. “Every time you do that, your vocal cords slam together, and it’s traumatic. We use breathing techniques to try to undo that behavior and teach people how to suppress a cough.”

Anyone experiencing a change in voice that lasts longer than two weeks should see a laryngologist, an ENT doctor who specializes in voice problems.

Learn more about laryngology care at Baylor Medicine or call (713) 798-5900 to schedule an appointment.

-By Molly Chiu

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