What Causes Vocal Hoarseness?

Published: 19th December 2008
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Copyright (c) 2008 Lynda Stucky

Did you know there is a correlation between physical fitness and vocal health? Vocal sound begins with a complex and dynamic interaction of various muscles in the vocal tract. A good exercise program increases cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength, flexibility and coordination. These benefits (especially endurance and flexibility) contribute to more efficient use of energy during speaking and singing by reducing tension and increasing airflow for breathing. But you still might be experiencing hoarseness if you don't take care of other factors that can create vocal problems.

Vocal hoarseness occurs for a variety of reasons. Here are 16 examples with explanations of vocal abuse that may cause hoarseness or vocal fatigue:

Coughing/Throat clearing -- When you cough or clear your throat, you are slamming your vocal cords together very hard. Doing this enough times will create swollen cords and the vocal sound will be different. There is a method for coughing and throat clearing that isn't hard on the cords that is especially effective for people who clear their throats or cough out of habit.

Excessive speaking during an upper respiratory infection -- Since we are talking about coughing and throat clearing, it is highly likely that you are experiencing a cold. If so, it could mean that there is excessive mucous drainage which adds to the irritation of the vocal cords. This is a good time to take a rest from your speaking. Giving your cords a break will be very beneficial!

Grunting (as in weight lifting) -- If you lift weights on a regular basis, you may be abusing your vocal cords. People who lift weights abruptly squeeze their vocal cords together with a lot of force and then grunt. This activity, repeated over time, may damage the vocal cords because the slamming together of the cords can cause a callous to build up, thus changing the mass of the vocal cords. This may result in a change in pitch and/or create vocal hoarseness.

Excessive talking -- Anyone who likes to talk frequently and also abuses the vocal cords by doing any of the other behaviors listed here, will most likely experience vocal fatique (the voice wears out by the end of the day), hoarseness or have a complete loss of voice.

Talking in noisy environments -- We all tend to speak louder in noisy environments and frequently speak at a higher pitch when talking loudly. This combination hurts the vocal cords.

Talking with excessive tension -- Imagine holding a tight fist all day. What do you think your hand will feel like at the end of the day? Tired? Sore? This is what happens to your voice when too much tension is present.

Smoking cigarettes/marijuana -- This one should be obvious...the smoke that passes through the vocal cords on their way to your lungs is extremely drying to the entire vocal tract. If you smoke, quit!

Speaking/singing in smoky environments -- Second hand smoke has been shown to hurt people almost as much as taking puffs yourself. If you have to speak or sing in smoky environments, be sure to drink plenty of water.

Drinking alcohol -- Alcohol is dehydrating and will rob you of your fluids. See the next point on drinking water.

Not drinking enough water -- Most experts recommend 8-10 glasses to stay well hydrated and keep your vocal performance edge!

Inadequate breath support -- Good breath support is essential when it comes to voice projection and maintaining good vocal health. Make sure you are using diaphragmatic support and not shallow breathing. Poor breathing technique is a common problem among speakers.

Reverse phonation -- To do this you must be speaking while inhaling. Think of gasping or certain types of sighing or even heavy sleeping. Some kids may talk like this for fun too! There may be an occupation that may use reverse phonation such as a clown. But, it isn't a good practice over the long term.

Abusive laughter -- Too high of a pitch, laughing with reverse phonation, or too loudly are the things that people can do wrong while laughing.

Yelling/Excessive habitual loudness -- Yelling, like throat clearing and coughing, slams the vocal cords together. Too often we also talk at a higher pitch when we get louder. This combination is hard on the vocal cords and over time, will result in hoarseness. Speaking too loudly over time will also hurt your vocal cords.

Inappropriate high/low pitch -- If you speak with a pitch that is too high or too low from the optimal place in your pitch range, you will experience hoarseness. Often times, individuals try to produce and maintain a pitch that is too low for their pitch range.

Hard glottal attacks -- The habit of building up pressure below the vocal cords and releasing the air abruptly on words that begin with vowels is called hard glottal attacks. Say "I" sharply and forcefully and then say "I" with a silent "h" in front of the "I.If done correctly, the resulting sound will be very different. When the vocal cords are chronically brought together forcibly, the result is hoarseness.

If you are hoarse and still not sure why, schedule an appointment with a physician or an Ears, Nose and Throat Specialist to find out if there is a physical problem.


Modifying vocal behaviors and maintaining good vocal health is not always easy. Let us help you establish a plan.

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