One of the biggest challenges to the singer is the common cold. Generally a cold is not a particularly severe illness, and the average person tends to be able to perform their normal daily activities without much effect. It is basically not much more than a nuisance.
But to the singer that nuisance can be a significant impediment to their vocal activities. This is because the parts of the body affected by the common cold are the very same parts that we use for singing.
First, let’s define what a cold is. The Wikipedia article opens with: “The common cold (also known as nasopharyngitis, rhinopharyngitis, acute coryza, head cold, or simply a cold) is a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract which primarily affects the nose. Symptoms include coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, and fever which usually resolve in seven to ten days, with some symptoms lasting up to three weeks. Well over 200 viruses are implicated in the cause of the common cold; the rhinoviruses are the most common.
Upper respiratory tract infections are loosely divided by the areas they affect, with the common cold primarily affecting the nose, the throat (pharyngitis), and the sinuses (sinusitis), occasionally involving either or both eyes via conjunctivitis. Symptoms are mostly due to the body’s immune response to the infection rather than to tissue destruction by the viruses themselves. The primary method of prevention is by hand washing with some evidence to support the effectiveness of wearing face masks. The common cold may occasionally lead to pneumonia, either viral pneumonia or secondary bacterial pneumonia.
No cure for the common cold exists, but the symptoms can be treated. It is the most frequent infectious disease in humans with the average adult contracting two to three colds a year and the average child contracting between six and twelve. These infections have been with humanity since antiquity.”
So now we have a better idea of what we are talking about. Colds are often referred to as Upper Respiratory Infections, or URIs. The problem for singers is the Upper Respiratory Tract basically is the vocal instrument.
One of the main components of a Cold is the effects experienced in the nose. A runny nose, stuffiness and inflammation can make singing awkward and even alter the tone quality of the voice because of the change of the resonating properties of the nasal passages.
Another common aspect of a Cold can be a sore throat, or Pharyngitis. Which means inflammation of the Pharynx. As we know, the Pharynx is a main part of the resonating system for the voice. With Pharyngitis it can be difficult to have mobility to stretch the inflamed tissue.
In fewer cases, the inflammation can move into the Larynx. This is called Laryngitis. Often in general usage that term is used for when someone loses their voice. But technically the word ending “itis” means “inflammation of”.
So Laryngitis means inflammation of the Larynx, Pharyngitis means inflammation of the Pharynx, Sinusitis inflammation of the Sinuses, etc. Sometimes Laryngitis results in a loss of voice, but usually it is more of an alteration of voice.
For instance, the feel of the voice will be different as will typically the sound. The feel could be described as a “lump” in the Larynx or scratchiness. The alteration of the sound might be a deepening of pitch or a grogginess to the sound.
If the inflammation is bad enough the sound may appear to be something of a forced whisper or a squeak. These are symptoms that we generally call “losing the voice”.
This happens because the vocal folds have swollen to a degree that they won’t vibrate normally to produce a sound.
(Frequently people will complain of Laryngitis as a result of yelling at a sporting event or party. I have often wondered if this is an accurate use of the term since no illness is involved. I assume that the cause of the inflammation is not necessarily a determining factor. So I guess inflammation from vocal abuse still technically is Laryngitis.)
Obviously if a cold reaches this level there is no point in trying to sing. Sometimes quiet vocal exercises using the little head voice can be therapeutic, but full vocalizations should be avoided.
(If the little head voice is not accessible it is a sign that the vocal folds are severely swollen and vocalization should be avoided)
This is because the vocal tissue is in an abnormal condition and use of the voice in this condition could potentially be harmful.
To Sing or Not to Sing
Usually when we have a cold that does not involve the Larynx it is safe to sing. The key points are to observe what your voice feels like and don’t over-do it.
As stated in the above Wikipedia quote, a cold is primarily localized in the nose and possibly the Pharynx. These are superficial symptoms and can be dealt with by a singer with good coordination.
Stuffiness and a runny nose generally will not pose any significant interference to our singing. Even inflammation of the Pharynx shouldn’t be much of a hindrance unless it is actually strep throat. Then the inflammation of the Pharynx can be quite painful and singing very difficult and avoided.
There really is no cure for a cold, but there are some things we can do to manage the severity and length. The most basic is hydration. We should always be conscious of our hydration, but even more so when we are sick.
A rule of thumb I go by is to take half of your weight in pounds and try to drink that many ounces per day. So for example, I’m 170 lbs. Half of that is 85. So I try to drink 85 oz of water each day.
I have a bottle that is about 25 oz, so I shoot for 3+ bottles a day. Sometimes I suspect that we get sick because we are dehydrated. Air humidity is also an important aspect of hydration. Drying of the mucous membrane of the nose can possibly allow virus’ to get through and into the bloodstream.
Everything about a Cold is related to our immune system. So anything that weakens it could be a contributing factor to getting sick.
And so anything we can do to strengthen our immune system the better we will be able to fight the viruses we are constantly in contact with.
I’m sure everyone has some remedy they have found helpful. And those should definitely be used, whether there is any “scientific” proof of their effectiveness or not.
I drink Apple Cider Vinegar/Water and find that helps. I recently started drinking water with pure lemon juice, which I feel is even more helpful.
Other tactics I have heard are Zinc, Vitamin C, Chicken Soup, Zicam, Airborne and others I’m sure. I always prefer natural remedies over medications in general since the medical establishment tells us there is no cure so there is no sense in buying any of their products because they admit they don’t do anything.
Dealing with a Cold While Singing
As I said, as long as the inflammation is not in the Larynx we are OK to sing. But, the big caveat to that statement is it is OK to sing IF you know how to coordinate the voice in a healthy way.
Often singers feel like they can’t sing when they have a cold. I have regularly sung with a cold and often have very productive learning sessions.
For example, many singers avoid having a lesson when they have a cold. I find that to be a great learning experience. Because when we have a cold there is a much smaller margin of error. So it forces us to become better coordinated in order to stay balanced.
Now, it is a possibility that if a singer is conditioned to use too much breath or force while singing it could be a problem if they do it with a cold.
These behaviors are counter-productive under normal conditions, but with the slight compromise of the instrument that goes with the cold they could be more harmful.
That is an example of what I mean by knowing how to coordinate the voice. So if a singer doesn’t know how to coordinate the voice well they might be better off avoiding singing when sick.
The key components are what I talk about in every post. A pure vibration effortlessly produced that is not burdened by air pressure that resonates freely through the whole length of the vocal tract, including the part above the roof of the mouth.
Please join in with questions and comments below.
I’d like to find out more? I’d love to find out some additional information.
You’re welcome Trisha.
thanks a ton Michael for this post. I have often wondered how professional manage singing with a cold. I have been fortunate not to have fallen sick before a big performance(singing at my local drama school annual founding day gala. But my friend had a bad bout and I came investigating and found this informative post.
Hello Jacqueline, that is not the usual experience for people. So that is why I didn’t speak on that. But it does happen occasionally, as you experienced. My thought on the reason for an improvement from a cold has to do with the general swelling of the mucous membrane.
Depending on the normal condition of the vibration of the vocal folds, the slight swelling (puffyness)of the mucosa could help in bringing the edges of the folds closer together. This will help in the high range by providing a needed resistance to the air so the vibration can increase in speed.
The preferable option would be to improve the coordination of the breathing and laryngeal function so the appropriate resistance of the vocal folds was the norm. This would then maximize the range naturally.
Thanks for your question!
Hello Mr Mayer!
Nothing about singing BETTER with a cold?
I have had 2 very positive experiences, one just recently (coryza)and one in 2006
(sinusitis),I remember because I keep a sort of diary about my singing.
Each time I could win (or recover)a third at the top of my voice.
My voice was not better in every respect but it was easier, more fluid and higher.
This is for me a mystery that
perhaps you can unravel?
You’re welcome, Anita. I’m glad they were helpful.
Thank you for this timely and helpful article. I thought I was havinga cold – but after reading the article, I can diagnose myself to be having a more severe case of laryngitis.
I also found your post on your daily routine to be immensely useful.
Thank you, Michael.
Thanks for a good warning, Mark.
Some people take Ibuprophen to relieve cold symptoms. Remember that is also a muscle relaxant and the vocal mechanism is a set of muscles. I experienced an increased tickling of the cords which made it very hard to sing. So, Mike is Right again, stick to natural remedies if you must sing with a cold.