One of the most common complaints I hear from singers is “I can’t sing because of my phlegm!” Over the years of teaching I have noticed that some singers really struggle with it and others have no problem, aside from the occasional cold. What causes it and why does it bother us sometimes and other times not at all? Here’s the low-down on that yucky stuff that sticks in your throat, phlegm.
WHAT IS PHLEGM?
If you do a quick search in google, the first definition that comes up is: “the thick viscous substance secreted by the mucous membranes of the respiratory passages, especially when produced in excessive or abnormal quantities, e.g., when someone is suffering from a cold.”
Don’t you love the word “viscous”? I can’t say I use that in my every day language so in case you wanted a more simple definition here it is:
Phlegm is a water-based gel that can get really thick especially when you have a cold.
WHERE DOES PHLEGM COME FROM?
We have these little bristles called celia that line the nasal cavity and the branches of the bronchial tree. These little guys move mucus around. The celia in the nose are busy moving the mucus to the throat or pharynx. This is felt as post-nasal drip. The celia in the linings of the branches of the bronchial tree move the mucus up into the trachea (breathing tube) and then up to the larynx where you cough, breathe or swallow it to get rid of it. Yummy, right?
WHAT IS CAUSING THIS ANNOYING GOOP?
Mucus exists to provide lubrication to our entire respiratory system from the lungs to the larynx to the throat. Mucus is not noticeable when it is the proper consistency which is thin and watery. What could cause your mucus to get thick and wreak havoc on your throat? Quite a few things, actually.
Dehydration. If your body is dehydrated, the mucus will be much thicker and more difficult to swallow. This is the number one reason for phlegm. Are you drinking 6-8 glasses of water every day? If you really want to get the goop off the vocal cords, you gotta get the water down-the-hatch! If the larynx has moisture, it will be well lubricated and you won’t feel the need to cough or clear your throat.
Medications. Antihistamines are the most commonly used drugs that cause drying. Other medications that can cause drying include antipsychotic, antidepressant, antibiotics, antidiarrheal, bronchodilators, and diuretics. If your medication has a side effect of dry mouth keep in mind you will have to drink more water to counteract the drying effects.
Stress. Have you ever been so anxious that you have a dry mouth? Yep. Stress can wreak havoc on our mucous production too. Stress and anxiety can cause a thick mucous to build up in the linings of the bronchial tubes and will travel upwards to the larynx creating that lovely goop, phlegm.
Allergies and Common Cold. As you would guess, any sort of infection or hypersensitivity of the immune system can cause inflammation. This inflammation can then produce a delicious combo of mucous, post-nasal drip and you guessed it-phlegm. When people think of allergies they often think of environmental allergies such as hay fever. Did you know you can also have a similar reaction to food allergies, even a mild food allergy?
Acid Reflux or GERD. This is a common ailment for many singers. One of the most common symptoms of acid reflux is an excessive need to clear your throat. If you have ruled out all of the above, get to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat Doctor) and get yourself checked out. The sooner the better, because acid can do some real nasty things to the walls of your throat and your beautiful vocal cords.
HOW DO I KICK THE GOOP OUT?
If you don’t want to keep track of the number of glasses of water you drink in a day, you can always check the color of your urine. “Pee Pale!”. (Keep in mind that some food and vitamins will color the urine).
Get yourself some water and drink up! I’ve always loved the taste of water (albeit filtered), but I know some struggle with the taste of it. If you need flavor, there are infusion water bottles that you can put frozen fruit in to flavor your water. You can also throw a lemon in your water or even an Certified Grade Essential Oil to give your water a boost.
During the winter months, run a cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom. It’s difficult to stay hydrated while sleeping! You will want to keep your humidity above 40%.
Hot Tea. If you aren’t a water fan then warm it up and add an herbal tea bag. Keep in mind that some teas have caffeine and will dry you out. Stick to herbal teas and always check your labels. The warm liquid can calm your anxieties, brake up the mucous and help you get hydrated.
Gargle Warm Salt Water.
If you haven’t heard it before–it works WONDERS and it soothes the throat. Recipe: 1/4 tsp. of salt in 8 oz. of warm water. Gargle for 15 seconds 2 times. Repeat 3 times a day.
Silent Cough. Inevitably at some point you will feel the need to clear your throat. Throat clearing can cause more harm than good because it slams the vocal cords together. Do this over and over and you may cause harm to your vocal cords. Enter the ‘silent cough’. Keeping the vocal cords open and without phonating, exhale a blast of air from the chest. This will not feel as gratifying as the more common clearing, but it will not irritate your vocal cords.