On the tenth day of vocal health, my true love gave to me...ten tea bags steeping.
We all want quick fixes and miracle cures. I spend a lot of time on forums in the social media world filled with singers who get sick, have a gig, and are looking for the fastest ways to get over it so they can keep the gig and not sound terrible. I'm here to offer a word of caution about the various teas, gargles, herbs, and whatnot that you might consider trying in order to get over an illness quickly.
In other words, I'm here to be a total Debbie Downer about the whole thing.
A quick caveat: I'm not a medical professional, so I can't offer any advice as to what you should take if you are sick. (Hint: your buddy on the Facebook forum isn't either.) Everything can effect a person differently than the next person, so if you find something that works for you, it might not work for anybody else. Anything you try should be run by your doctor. He or she might have an even better idea for something to keep on hand for just such an emergency!
Aaaaand an admitted bias: I love the promise of a miracle cure as much as the next gal, but I do have a bias toward research/evidence-based practices, so I tend to stick with the things that have a proven track record. Spoiler: it's not fancy stuff. In fact, it's really boring and you probably already know about all of it. Keep reading anyway.
I get it. The way the gig economy works can be brutal for trying to pay your bills, and losing a job can be really hard when it comes to making ends meet, especially in the lean months. It's easy to panic when it looks like you might not be able to perform up to expected standards because of a stupid germ that decided to wreck your life at the most inopportune time. Uuuuuugh.
A quick Google search will point you to all kinds of throat sprays, teas, herbs, warm up routines, etc., that promise faster results when fighting the ick. The problem is that none of it really has great evidence to back up the claims. Now, I'm not saying that it doesn't work. I'm saying there's no real evidence that it does, or at least that it does often enough that I would feel comfortable taking it myself.
Herbs and herbal teas can be drying (this is a documented effect), which is exactly the opposite of what you need when you're sick. Plus, some people have allergic or other kinds of physical reactions to herbs. Herbs should be treated like medicine, if you are taking them medicinally. That means you need to know about dosage, possible interactions with other things you're taking, and possible side effects. The NCVS database has several herbs listed and their known vocal side effects. Also, anything you ingest, whether in liquid or pill form, has to go through the digestive system in order to be distributed through your system. Nothing you drink touches your vocal folds themselves. Drinking warm teas might make the environment in your larynx feel better, but it takes a few hours for anything you ingest to have any effect on your vocal folds.
Throat sprays, lozenges, and gargles are much the same way, in that they don't touch the vocal folds directly. They might effect the laryngeal environment, but again, you should treat them medicinally and know what's in them and what the possible side effects might be.
So, now that I've totally burst your bubble, what is a singer to do when the gunk strikes?
First, don't panic.
The symptoms of the illness are, in part, your own body's response to fighting it. If you've got a runny nose and sneezing, your immune system is working the way it's supposed to. Suppressing some of that might actually make the illness stick around longer, even if you're feeling better. If you can give your body the time to let the illness run it's course without suppressing every symptom, you might be better for it in the long run even if you're miserable in the short term. That's not always possible when you've got a gig the very next night, but if it is possible, just give your body time and rest.
Start now to plan for your next illness.
This means developing a habit of good nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Hydrate. Take time off. You know...all the things that gigging musicians tend to struggle with anyway. Yep. Those things. The fact is that if your body is worn down and tired, you're more likely to get sick and for it to stick around longer. If you can build up your immune system now by doing the things that will make it stronger, it could pay dividends in the future. Know that I'm also preaching to myself here. Sleep is a habit that is totally my nemesis. Feel free to message me and remind me to go to bed on time tonight.
Additionally, as you grow your reputation as a dedicated and responsible professional, you might
find that you are able to take more leeway when things go awry. Build bridges now with gig partners and other professionals, so that when you need somebody to cover for you, you can call on them and know that it will be taken care of. Or if you need help from your bandmates on a certain passage that is difficult while your vocal folds are the size of throw pillows, let them know and let them help you through it. And be generous when others are ill, too.
Develop a good relationship with your doctor.
This is also something that needs prior planning, but if you have a good relationship with your healthcare person, and they are aware of your needs as a performing musician, you may be able to get a plan in place ahead of time and get the stuff you need to start treating your illnesses faster. Especially if you have chronic or recurring issues, having your doc in your corner can be invaluable! If this is something you need to get established, schedule a well visit now and ask for plenty of time to be able to talk through your needs with your PCP or laryngologist.
Understand the power of the placebo effect.
If you decide to try a tea, or an herb, or a throat spray, know that the most effective ingredient is your mind. It's a well-documented fact that if people expect to feel better when taking a treatment, they will. It's almost like magic. That makes it a little tough to know whether it's the tea or your brain making you feel better, but hey, whatever works, right?
Know that good showmanship can cover a multitude of vocal sins.
If you just have to perform, sell it. Go all out. Have fun. Chances are, if you are putting on a good show, your audience won't even hear the change in your voice. And if you crack a note, laugh it up and admit that you've got a cold. Bring the people over to your side, and they'll be cheering you on instead of booing you offstage. People love a great underdog story, so you can make the germ the big, bad, nasty villain, and you the conquering hero, and your audience will go right along with you.
Thoughts? Anything you agree or disagree with? If so, let me know in the comments. I'm wishing you all the best vocal health you can have in this busy season!