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Learning About Voice Problems

Inside view of throat, showing larynx, vocal cords, and trachea, with details of closed and open vocal cords.

What are voice problems?

Voice problems usually include pain or discomfort when you speak or trouble controlling the pitch, loudness, hoarseness, or quality of your voice.

Your voice involves several body parts. As you breathe out, air gently passes through your throat, across your open vocal cords, and out your mouth and nose. When you speak, your vocal cords close partway as air travels through them. This causes vibrations and the sound of your voice. Trouble with any of these body parts can lead to a voice problem.

Several things can cause problems with your voice. These include:

  • Health conditions, such as colds, allergies, and acid reflux.
  • Diseases, such as cancer.
  • Growths on the vocal cords.
  • Nerve problems that stop the vocal cords from vibrating.
  • Surgery or radiation treatments near your vocal cords.
  • Things you might do that strain your voice, such as shouting, screaming, or whispering.

What are the symptoms?

Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • A low, raspy, or rough voice.
  • Being hoarse.
  • Not being able to talk at all.

How are voice problems treated?

Treatment often can improve the voice. The treatment for your problem depends on how severe it is and what caused it. And keep in mind that it may take some time for your voice to improve or return to normal.

  • Some voice problems get better on their own. These include voice problems caused by colds and influenza (flu).
  • You may need medicine if your voice problems are caused by medical conditions.
  • You may need surgery if you have a growth on your vocal cords.
  • Your doctor may suggest voice therapy if there are things you can do to use your voice in a healthier way.

How can you care for your voice?

There are things you can do to take care of your voice.

  • Drink plenty of water to keep your throat moist. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make your voice raspy and can increase your risk of throat cancer. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier to add moisture to your bedroom. Follow the directions for cleaning the machine.
  • Rest your voice when it is irritated. Use email, send text messages, or write notes when you can.
  • When you do talk, speak at a moderate volume. Don't whisper. It can be hard on your voice. And try not to talk loudly or shout.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • Your voice problems are getting worse.
  • You have new or worse trouble swallowing.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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