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15 Tips for Singing While Sick

Updated on September 6, 2016
Cancelling a gig isn't always an option... but damaging the voice shouldn't be either! As a vocalist myself (seen here with my band Odds Fish, while sick) I can relate, and I am here to help!
Cancelling a gig isn't always an option... but damaging the voice shouldn't be either! As a vocalist myself (seen here with my band Odds Fish, while sick) I can relate, and I am here to help!

The Show Must Go On!

Getting sick can be very hard on singers. As the front person for the Lansing, Michigan based, progressive, indie, rock n' roll band, Odds Fish, I understand completely! I actually just did a series of shows while I suffered from a nasty summer cold, and believe me... it was no walk in the park.

But there are ways to minimize the agony of illness, diminish the mucus overloads, cut down on scary inflammation, and prevent vocal pain and long term damage, and I happen to know a lot of them. (How do you think I got through those shows?)

How do I know these magical tips for singing while you're sick? Well, I happen to have a degree in music education from Grand Valley State University, vocal music was my area of expertise as an educator, and I happened to learn a lot about vocal health in college and beyond. Plus, I once had vocal polyps myself and had to go through vocal physical therapy to learn how to truly use my voice in healthy ways. Not to mention that over the years, I have had training in health, nutrition, and fitness, I took voice lessons myself, taught voice lessons to others, and am a lead singer in a rock band. So I have a bit of experience on the subject of singing while one is sick.

(All that being said, I am not a doctor, so be sure to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your diet, fitness routine, or lifestyle, or before adding any foods or supplements that you've never made use of before, as some of the suggested foods and supplements can have adverse effects on people with certain medical conditions.)

15 Tips for Singing While Sick

1. Stay Hydrated — Drink Lots of Water
2. Take Vocal Rest Seriously
3. Get Plenty of Sleep
4. Drink Throat Coat Tea
5. Get Steamy
6. Meditate
7. Opt for Lozenges, Throat Drops, and Candies Over Cough Drops
8. Get Comfort from Throat Sprays
9. Eat Foods that Fight Inflammation and Promote Healing
10. Avoid Irritants and Damaging Behaviors
11. Make Accommodations
12. Make Use of Alternative Throat Soothers
13. Embrace the Act of Humming
14. Warm Up and Cool Down
15. Don't Overdo It
Sometimes, as Freddy Mercury famously sang: "the show must go on!"
Sometimes, as Freddy Mercury famously sang: "the show must go on!"

1. Stay Hydrated — Drink Lots of Water

Hydration is essential for good vocal health in general, and it is even more important when a vocalist is sick. Singers should drink far more water than normal. Peeing a lot is fine - it's good actually! Just make sure you re-up on your water after each restroom trip. (Bonus tips: ice water can help reduce inflammation and water with a bit of lemon juice becomes a stellar way to stay hydrated, get extra vitamin C, and satisfy cravings for something other than plain ol' water. If you need to mix it up even more, Vitamin Water and Gatorade work, but regular water is best.)

2. Take Vocal Rest Seriously

If you can avoid talking completely while you're sick, that is ideally what you should do. But as many of us have jobs and other responsibilities, this kind of dedicated vocal rest is not always possible.

That's why, when you do have the chance to partake of long periods of vocal rest, you must be sure to make the most of them! Don't talk about trivial things that can easily be taken care of at a later date or written down, don't whisper, and definitely do not sing! Try to remain as silent as possible, and if you have to talk, make sure that you are hydrated and that you take a big, healthy breath before words exit your lips.

3. Get Plenty of Sleep

Our bodies do a lot to heal themselves and fight illnesses when we're sleeping. In general, it is wise to get 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night consistently, even when one is completely healthy, because getting consistent sleep is so important for our overall body function and health. But getting that consistent sleep is even more important when one is sick. In fact, when one is sick, I recommend bumping those hours of sleep up to 8 to 10 per night instead, as our bodies are tackling much more than normal.

4. Drink Throat Coat Tea

I specifically recommend Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat Tea with Echinacea and Lemon. This amazing, soothing, and seemingly magical tea has licorice root, marshmallow root, and more to fight inflammation and digestive upset; it has echinacea, which helps in easing sinus related symptoms of colds and flues, as well as assisting with coughing and body aches; and it has bitter fennel fruit which helps with lung function and more. So, basically, it's awesome.

I like to add extra lemon and some honey to mine as well. I also like to combine the tea with my coffee. (Coffee can be dehydrating, but it does help with inflammation and the heat is soothing.)

5. Get Steamy

Steaming the voice can be very helpful when a singer is sick. Some of the benefits of steaming include: relaxed muscles, toxin elimination, an immune system boost, moist mucous membranes (instead of painful, dry ones...), reduced coughing (and more productive coughs when one does have them), relief from inflammation and congestion in the upper respiratory tract, and more!

Great ways to "get steamy" and help your voice:

  • A steaming pot and a towel over the head (oldie, but goodie...)
  • A hot and steamy shower
  • Sauna time!
  • Steam baths and steam rooms

Take care of your voice, and your voice will take care of you.

Carrying your instrument within is a blessing and a curse. Physical health becomes a much bigger priority when you perform regularly.
Carrying your instrument within is a blessing and a curse. Physical health becomes a much bigger priority when you perform regularly.

6. Meditate

Meditation can assist singers (and everyone) in so many ways. But some of the more obvious ways in which meditation assists vocalists, especially when sick, are as follows:

  • It forces vocal rest.
  • It provides a sense of calm, peace, and stillness which distracts from the physical suffering of being sick.
  • It helps to reduce inflammation and body aches and pains by relaxing the body.
  • It allows the singer to not worry about the upcoming performance; at least for awhile. And the elimination of stress and worry lets the body focus on fighting the illness and not one's own fears...

But meditation may be able to help in other ways too. Depending on how open you are to alternative therapies, meditation may be able to do much more for you when you're sick. I know it helps me very much.

7. Opt for Lozenges, Throat Drops, and Candies Over Cough Drops

When people are coughing a lot, they assume "cough drops" are the way to go for relief. (I mean, they have "cough" in the name!) But on the whole, cough drops do more bad than good, especially if you need to sing! Most cough drops remove moisture and dry the throat and mucous membranes, getting rid of dreaded phlegm and stopping coughs for short periods of time. But, as we have already established, hydration is incredibly important for singers, so anything that removes moisture from the throat, vocal folds, and mucous membranes in the respiratory system is not the best option. What's better? Well, water and throat coat tea, for starters! But when it comes to a soothing drop that is easy to pop, my favorites are Luden's Cherry Throat Drops, little hard candies (especially candies made with honey), and mints.

8. Get Comfort from Throat Sprays

I wouldn't recommend using throat sprays all the time, but when one is sick, they can provide some temporary relief. My favorites to use are Vocal Eze throat spray, which was designed for people who make heavy use of their voices, and Comfortably Numb Deep Throat Spray in Cinnamon, which was designed for something a little different, but still works wonders when it comes to soothing an irritated and/or sore throat.

Do not use these sprays within an hour or so before you perform, though — you need your throat to be active and responsive when singing, not over soothed or numbed.

9. Eat Foods that Fight Inflammation and Promote Healing

Great foods that fight inflammation and promote healing, and are therefore great for vocalists when they're sick (or any time really) include:

  • Basil
  • Spinach
  • Arugula
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Blueberries
  • Kale
  • Red peppers
  • Cinnamon
  • Garlic
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Strawberries
  • Ginger
  • Sage
  • Tart cherries
  • Avocado
  • Salmon
  • Corn chips and tomato based salsas
  • Almonds
  • Oranges
  • Pineapple
  • Bok choy
  • Beets
  • Romaine lettuce

I know wine is great, but it too should be avoided, especially in large amounts, when sick.
I know wine is great, but it too should be avoided, especially in large amounts, when sick.

10. Avoid Irritants and Damaging Behaviors

We've talked a lot about things to do, but now we're going to focus on some things to avoid when one has to sing while sick.

The biggest things to avoid are irritants. Irritants include:

  • Alcohol
  • Cigarettes
  • Cigars
  • Hookah Pipes
  • Sugary, carbonated drinks (if you need a pop, go with a clear option)

Damaging behaviors also need to be avoided. These include:

  • Whispering
  • Yelling / Screaming
  • Singing without warming up
  • Continuing to push for notes when pain is present

Finally, there are a few other things to try to avoid:

  • Dairy products (they cause a lot of extra mucous to accumulate, which you don't need...)
  • Extremely dry environments (get a humidifier if you can't avoid this!)
  • Other sick people. (You already have a weakened immune system! Let's not make this worse...)
  • Carb heavy meals (pastas, pizzas, processed boxed dinners, and most fast food, for example, as they may contribute to problems in the sinuses)
  • Negativity (don't let the illness break your spirit!)

Not all singers opt to sing while sick, nor do they have to (Adele comes to mind), but for the rest of us... it is often a reality we just have to face head on.
Not all singers opt to sing while sick, nor do they have to (Adele comes to mind), but for the rest of us... it is often a reality we just have to face head on.

A Question for My Fellow Singers

Have you ever performed while you were sick?

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11. Make Accommodations

It is not the end of the world to make a few changes to your set in order to accommodate a weakened voice when you're sick. In fact, it can lend itself to some interesting shows, as you may pull out "easier" songs you haven't done in awhile or sing a "harder" song down an octave and acoustically, changing the feel of it entirely for that one performance. Be open to a few tricks and fixes, and the overall show will only benefit, not suffer. Plus, the chance of damaging the voice is reduced when the stress of "having to hit that one big note" is eliminated.

12. Make Use of Alternative Throat Soothers

Some people don't believe in teas, sprays, lozenges, cough drops, and throat soothing medications. That's okay. If you are looking for alternative throat soothers/healers, here they are (or at least, here are a few suggestions):

  • Aloe vera juice
  • Liquid form coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Lemon water
  • Raw honey
  • Black tea
  • Green tea
  • Chamomile
  • Warm salt water (gargled or swallowed)
  • Pomegranate juice
  • Pineapple juice
  • Concord grape juice

Another pain-relieving alternative is using a heating pad on the front of the neck. (If it is lavender, cinnamon, or menthol/mint infused, even better!)

13. Embrace the Act of Humming

Humming is a wonderful way to warm the vocal cords without providing unnecessary strain. Humming should always be done before warming up and performing, but it is even more important to hum when you have to sing while sick!

I would suggest humming early in the morning to activate the voice (after a glass of water), and for at least 20 minutes to an hour before officially warming up before any practice or performance. Luckily, humming is not loud and can usually be done while other bands perform without detracting from their show. But humming can also be done in green rooms, bathrooms, touring vans, etc. So, hum on...

How careful are you when it comes to warming up/cooling down?

Do you warm up and cool down your voice?

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14. Warm Up and Cool Down

Warming up and cooling down the voice are both so vital for singers, especially when singing sick, and often vocalists neglect these two important aspects of vocal health. No more! Make it a point to warm up and cool down!

Warming up starts with humming but moves into bigger and broader exercises. Every singers' warm-ups are slightly different, but the main point is to make sure that one's vocal cords are relaxed and flexible, and that there is no strain or pain.

Cooling down the voice is much like cooling down the body after an intense workout. Long, drawn out notes that are allowed to drift off are nice, as is settling back into a happy hum. But much like warming up, each performers' cool down is going to be slightly different. What matters is that you DO it!

15. Don't Overdo It

This seems like a simple statement, but as a lead singer who loves to perform, even when I'm sick as all else, I know how challenging it can be to stop oneself from going all out! But when one is singing while sick, "going all out" really needs to be avoided.

This is not to say that you can't put on a good show, because, yes, you can! I have given many a great performance while ill. It's not about that; it's about knowing your limits, respecting your instrument, and listening to your body.

If it literally hurts to sing, and every note is a battle, then you're overdoing it. You need a break and you need to go through the rest of the suggestions on this list!

My band, Odds Fish, depends on me, sick or not! But I have learned how to reign it in and not work myself too hard when I'm sick. Long term damage is not worth it.
My band, Odds Fish, depends on me, sick or not! But I have learned how to reign it in and not work myself too hard when I'm sick. Long term damage is not worth it. | Source

Was this helpful?

Did you find my 15 tips for singing while sick helpful, or not? Feel free to elaborate in the comments below!

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A Few Final Thoughts

When it comes to singing while sick, the best advice of all is NOT to do it. But, as we know, that is not always the best option for us singers career-wise, business-wise, or financially. So, as that is the case for so many of us, I do hope that these 15 tips for singing while sick can help other vocalists out there, as much as they have helped, and continue to help, me.

If there is something that I missed, that you swear by as a vocalist, please let me (and everyone else) know in the comments below.

Take care and rock on!

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    • BassPuppet profile image

      Viv 13 months ago from near Seattle, WA

      Thank you!