Yes, it’s that time of year when the Ned Stark memes run rampant on Facebook and we all start wishing we lived in a more equatorial nation. For singers, winter can pose particularly big challenges as we try to take care of our voices. Here are some of the things to watch out for at this time of year
Beware extreme temperatures
Winter in the UK is a land of extreme temperatures. While we’re outside in the freezing cold at one moment, we’re then back inside in a heated building the next. Although our bodies are self-regulating, the temperature of the air we breathe will affect our vocal folds as it rushes by.
In cold temperatures, breathing through your nose is the simplest way to warm air up before it hits your throat. Noses go red in the cold because the body sends blood to it in order to warm the air coming in. Covering your mouth/nose with a scarf can help too, if you’ve got a bad cold.
Once you’re inside, make sure you warm up properly before singing. A bit of running on the spot and gentle stretching will get your blood flowing and help your vocal folds to warm up. Try not to keep the heating in your house too high as this makes going outside even worse, and can contribute to the problem of hydration.
Wherever you end up singing this winter, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to acclimatise, and warm up your body and voice in the venue.
Mad as it sounds, dehydration can be a real problem for singers in winter. Central heating often dries out the air, and because we’re not feeling warm, it can take longer to become aware we need to drink more liquid.
The best way to hydrate is to use warm, body temperature liquids as your body can absorb those most easily. Take care also not to drink only caffeinated tea and coffee as caffeine has diuretic properties (i.e. it makes you want to pee more often), and the milk we usually add can cause phlegm issues (ugh!). Switch in warm sugar-free squash or fruit teas, especially before practicing and on performance days. Honey and lemon makes a really good hydration choice as it cleans out excess phlegm and boosts your immune system.
Of course, the dangers of overhydration are as serious as dehydration, so only drink if you are thirsty, and stop when you feel satisfied. If you have chronic dehydration, speak to your GP as this can be a sign of something more serious.
Beware of colds and coughs
Most of us won’t get flu this winter, but we might get some bad colds. If you’re not sure which you’ve got, here’s a handy chart:
Assuming it’s a cold, take care to be alert to how your voice feels. So long as it’s not painful, it’s absolutely fine to sing if you have a cold, cough or other mild illness. If it hurts, stop! Make sure you keep hydrated, though. It’s also important to avoid taking any medication which numbs your throat (e.g. Strepsils) before singing. By numbing your throat, you’re preventing your nervous system alerting you when you’re damaging your voice.
Colds can’t be treated by medication because they’re viruses. Even paracetamol can slow down the healing process as a fever is one of the tricks your body uses to kill of the virus. However, if your symptoms are severe, go on for more than a week or two, or include non-cold symptoms like breathlessness or sustained high fever, do get in touch with your GP, or your local out-of-hours helpline (e.g. NHS 111 in England, or NHS 24 in Scotland). Remember, your local A&E is for emergencies only, and 999 for dire emergencies.
Beware the flu
Finally, if you’re eligible for the flu vaccination for free, go and get it. Most people I know who get it attest that they get less colds over the winter, as well as the benefits of the protection from flu. Eligible groups include under 18s (nasal spray), over 65s, and people with long-term conditions like asthma, heart problems and diabetes. If you’re not sure if you’re eligible, give your GP a call.
If you’re not eligible for the vaccine for free, you can pay for it privately at your local pharmacy. This year, your local Boots store will charge you £12.99. I would highly recommend considering getting a flu vaccine if you are a singer as it will help to boost your immune system all year long!
Whatever else you do, keep singing, and keep taking care of your voice by exercising as often as possible.
Do you have any winter survival tips for singers? Post them in the comments below.