Phlegm: Your Frenemy

'Tis the season. Allergy season, that is. And many of you are dealing with the annoyance of extra phlegm and all the hassles that go with it because of the pollen, dust, mold, and whatever else is floating in the air.


But phlegm doesn't just happen in the spring. Oh, no. You can deal with extra phlegm at all times of the day and night, year round. So what is an exasperated singer to do when that nasty stuff makes its presence known? And how can a voice teacher guide his or her clients through the ickiness that comes with trying to sing with gunk?


First, let's see if we can make friends with your phlegm.


No, really. Hear me out.

Phlegm isn't necessarily the problem. It's annoying, and bothersome, and can make your voice do weird things, but the phlegm is really the symptom.


Let's get a few definitions and physiology out of the way.


Our bodies produce "mucous" pretty much all the time. Your body generally makes around 1-1.5 liters of the stuff on the daily from glands in the mouth, nose and throat. Usually this mucous is thin and kind of stringy, with the purpose of protecting tissue by keeping it moist (sorry, there is no good synonym) and allowing some surfaces, like your vocal folds, to slide over one another with less friction. "Phlegm," on the other hand, is mucous that is produced lower in the respiratory tract, and can often be an indication of some sort of inflammation going on. It is often expelled from the lungs by coughing, whereas mucous come out of your nose if it needs to be expelled. It can be different thicknesses and colors, which can indicate different types of infections or irritants.


When your body produces phlegm, it is usually in response to something. That might be an infection, like a sinus infection or bronchitis. It might be responding to environmental triggers, like allergies or smoke. It also could be from a chronic condition like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) or cystic fibrosis. In all of these instances, the phlegm is the symptom of the problem, and here is where it can be your friend. Sort of.


Alright, alright, I admit I'm stretching a bit here, BUT if you can figure out why the phlegm is showing up in the first place, it can lead you to a real solution to the problem. And that's how it can help you out. If we try to just treat the phlegm but don't get to the root of the problem, we could be dropping ourselves into a perpetual whack-a-mole cycle where we are constantly fighting the phlegm but ignoring the underlying issues. Phlegm is your body's way of telling you there's an issue and trying to solve it, so by listening to your body's response you could have a better chance at ridding yourself of your frenemy much more successfully!


Hear me clearly, unfortunately there are no guaranteed quick fixes for phlegm relief. Lots of singers have tried lots of things. Lozenges that contain lemon can perhaps work in the short term, but often there will be a rebound effect as the body responds to the extra acid from the lemon. Teas and other types of drinks marketed toward singers have no real scientific backing on them, and some contain ingredients that can be dangerous for certain conditions. As an example, a well-known "singer's tea" contains licorice root, which can be dangerous for those with heart conditions. ALWAYS read the ingredients label! Potato chips don't really "coat the throat," though they can make your soul happy. The best long term solution to the phlegm problem is to get to the underlying issue.


It can be a long and difficult process to get to the bottom of a chronic phlegm problem. I will not down play the frustration it can bring. However, getting a good voice care team together and sticking with it until you find the right solution for your body and your voice is worth it. And whatever professionals or specialists you visit, make sure they know that you are a singer and that your health greatly affects your career! If they don't listen, find someone else. Your voice is worth fighting for.


In the short term, the excess phlegm can still be a problem. One of the best things we can do is increase our water intake to help thin it out, which will make it easier to expel from your body. Examine any foods and medications that you are taking in to see if your body might have a reaction to them that could produce extra phlegm. If you need to find a substitute medication, put in a call to your healthcare provider for advice. You might also need to monitor your performing environment for possible triggers, such as stage fog, mold in old buildings, or cigarette smoke. Nebulizers or steamers can be helpful for some singers.


If you're a voice teacher with a client trying to solve a phlegm problem, please remember that you can recommend water and sleep, but any other remedies need to come from the appropriate medical professionals. We can easily steer our clients in an incorrect direction if we don't have the correct underlying cause for the phlegm in the first place. We definitely need to stay in our own lane of expertise when it comes to diagnosing medical issues in our clients.


While it's not a pal you'd like to invite around all the time, excess phlegm can be a help in identifying issues that your body is dealing with and help you to know when you've got them managed. And that's why phlegm can be your singing frenemy.


Got thoughts or questions? Put them in the comments, or send me a message through my website. I'd love to talk with you further!


Need help knowing vocal side effects of your medications, vitamins, or supplements? Check out the database from the National Center for Voice and Speech at www.ncvs.org/rx.html

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