A Tunedly newsletter subscriber recently asked us this very question and we thought it best to source for answers and write an article that best explains an answer to it. Like this subscriber, it is most likely a question that most of us have to bother our minds. This is most likely because throat clearing, especially when done forcefully, has become a habit we most likely do not have under our control. It just happens and there is not so much we feel we can do about it.
To answer the question, yes. Throat clearing does do damage to vocal cords. They cause inflammation in the throat that usually recreates the urge to clear the throat again. Throat clearing brings about a forceful slamming of our vocal cords together in a violent way. This creates a cycle of continuous throat-clearing that is very hazardous to the throat and leaves the cords damaged with its continuity. In fact, throat clearing is injuring your vocal cords just before you use them.
Throat clearing urges usually occur when we feel mucus in our throat. This mucus is made by our bodies every day, about 1 to 1.5 liters of it, for the purpose of lubrication and protection of body tissues by filtration of irritants that get into our respiratory system, aid in swallowing mechanism, and create a proper functionality of the voice. So in essence, the mucus we try to clear out is created for our own body by our own body to help our own body function properly.
Since the mucus is used in respiratory system filtration, it means that it is created around the nose region. The mucus, however, has just two ways to leave the nose, either through the front where it drips out on the face, or through the back of the nose in what is called a postnatal drip. This drip occurs without one even knowing it’s happening, till it becomes thick or excessive and feels like a lump in the throat, a condition that is called a globus sensation. It is when the mucus becomes thick or when we feel a globus sensation that we become inclined to clear our throats forcefully.
Now even though this mucus thickening is a normal body operation and not a medical condition, there are however some actions taken by humans or even other medical conditions that can probably increase the frequency of excessive mucus. These like insufficient hydration, allergies, asthma, food sensitivities, cold, sinus infection, smoking, dry/dusty/fuming environments, alcohol and caffeine consumption (which can dehydrate your mucous membranes), silent reflux or laryngopharyngeal reflux (where the acid backs up all the way to your throat, side effects from some blood pressure medications known as ACE inhibitors and laryngeal sensory neuropathy (a condition where the nerves leading to the voice box and larynx become hypersensitive and the cough or clearing are more frequently triggered) are some of these kinds of situations.
Throat clearing is not good for the vocal cords and hence needs to be broken as a habit. There are different ways or alternatives to this habit so that one can reduce its occurrences and eventual damage of the vocal cords. The first step will be to visit a medical practitioner (otolaryngologist) in cases where there seems to be excessive mucus, just to confirm or rule out any underlying medical condition.
Constantly keeping the body hydrated is also a way to help reduce the thickening of mucus around the throat. Dehydration can cause the throat mucus to become really thick and make us presume that we have too much mucus in our system. Steam inhalation is another way to get water directly into the surface of the vocal cords to moisturize them and thin out the mucus. This is a faster way to get the throat clear and is advised to be carried out a few minutes before a performance. It is advisable to do this frequently and also drink plenty of water in small sums across your day.
Avoiding foods that cause silent acid reflux to the throat will also help in reducing mucus formation in the throat. This also goes to say that you should avoid eating before any vocal performance. And finally, if the urge to reduce to stop throat-clearing doesn’t disappear, safely clearing your throat by pronouncing the H sound forcefully can help clear mucus without damaging your vocal cords. All of these remedies require patience to be effective, so be sure to bring your consistency to see their work properly over time.
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