Your Vocal Cords Hate the Pandemic, Too
Masks, distancing, and remote meetings can protect overall health, but they are rough on the voice
If you’ve found yourself doing a lot of yelling during the pandemic, you’re not alone. The new reality of social distancing, wearing masks, and communicating through video platforms has forced many of us to change how we use our voices — and it’s not looking good for our vocal health. Complaints about hoarseness and a rough throat are on the rise, and laryngologists have noted growing numbers of patients seeking care for voice-related issues.
The greater vocal effort required during this pandemic, both from mask-wearing and video calls, explains why many people experience vocal strain, says Lee Michael Akst, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Voice Center. It’s difficult to judge volume over computer screens during video calls, so people often speak much louder than necessary, he adds. Back-to-back work meetings followed by virtual hangouts with friends also can lead to voice overuse.
Just as overuse can injure our joints, we can damage our vocal cords when we work them too hard.
Interacting with people in person isn’t the usual walk in the park for the vocal cords, either. Face masks dampen sounds and muffle the voice, so we speak with greater intensity just to be heard over the mask and from six feet away. The masking of visual communication cues, like facial expressions and lip-reading, doesn’t help.
This prolonged daily effort leads to strain. We produce voice when the vocal cords vibrate rapidly inside the larynx (also known as the voice box) as air passes through them. Just as overuse can injure our joints, we can damage our vocal cords when we work them too hard.
“With prolonged or intense voice use, the extremely rapid collisional forces from the vibrations can be traumatic to the vocal cords, resulting in swelling or stiffness,” says Michael Lerner, MD, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Yale University School of Medicine. Stiff or swollen vocal cords just don’t vibrate as readily, which manifests as hoarseness, also known as dysphonia. “I suspect that many of the patients I am seeing…