Ever woken up in the middle of the night coughing and no matter how much you drink it just doesn’t seem to help it? Or mid song you hit that note a little uneven and you dry your voice out? So many things can affect us – sometimes even just getting into a car with the heating on can dry us out. Unfortunately due to poor technique some of us get that dry feeling whenever we sing. That dry catching in your throat is a singers worst nightmare, it can mean a few things, among others it could mean we have a cold coming, maybe that our voices are tired, we’re dehydrated, or we have poor breath support – all of which will severely affect our singing voice’s performance.

There is however a little savior in the form of a steam inhaler, It was something recommended to me when I was suffering with vocal issues when I was at college, and then packed it away and forgot about it. A few years ago I came across another singer with dry throat issues and recommended it to him – before remembering that it was something I should have really been doing on a daily basis as part of good practice.

Anyway I reinvested in new steam inhaler, and again being a bit naughty it stayed in its box until I came down with a cold, it was an irritating throaty cold where I lost my voice and couldn’t stop coughing throughout, I generally resembled Stevie Nicks for a few days. So I began to use my steam inhaler again, and it was one of the only things that did bring my poor dry throat relief. A few days later my voice had returned and I decided to go ahead with my scheduled students and teach for the evening. Which obviously was a mistake, 10 minutes into my lesson I was demonstrating an exercise and a cough caught my dry throat again, It was pretty horrendous, I felt like I was choking, I felt quite bad for my student to have to witness it (Sorry again Aaron!). Anyway my trusty steamer was in my bag and there was a kettle in the studio so luck was on my side. Within minutes it had pretty much instantly revived my voice, and I was able to carry on teaching for the next 4 hours with no other issues. To be honest I’d definitely forgotten just how good these little steamers were.

The sciencey bit

When we drink water it doesn’t actually pass over our vocal folds (if it did we would choke to death) so if you’re feeling dry and generally under the weather, or even just over worked, hydrating early enough and steaming is essential. The water that we drink doesn’t actually get to your vocal folds for quite a while, your body needs to absorb it first, the exact time for this varies differently depending who you talk to, some say it takes up to 12 hours for water to reach the vocal folds, others say it can take as little as 20 minutes to an hour, either way its widely agreed you will not receive instant hydration, you may however find some relief when the water reaches and re-hydrates the back of your throat and the swallowing action may massage the larynx and move around any moisture on the folds which is there to a degree.

Either way steaming is probably the best way to get direct hydration to your vocal folds. As you breathe in the steam the moisture will reach your vocal folds and help to re-hydrate, warm and soothe them, it may also help to reduce swelling and generally help to improve the condition of your voice. This of course does not replace your water intake so keep drinking!

So how do we steam?

The most efficient way to steam is with a steam inhaler, you can get them for £5-£10 online and they are well worth the investment (try to avoid the steam inhalers with the holes in the mouth/nose piece as the steam seems to escape out of the holes and limits the amount of steam reaching your vocal folds). I also recently invested in an a electric steam inhaler, I love it – it produces so much steam with such little water and I can steam for as long as I need. It does however get a little too warm at times so if you are going to use an a electric steamer please be careful not to scald yourself. 

A steam inhaler is safer than using the old bowl and towel method, I think you get more direct steam and I find it a little more convenient as you can get on with other things whilst doing it. I always tell my students to steam when their putting their feet up watching TV or listening to music. I find my students who have a steam inhaler are more likely to regularly steam then those who have to dedicate a full 20 minutes a day to hanging over a bowl to steam.

Some tips for steaming

  • When you steam you don’t want to use boiling water, you want it just off the boil.
  • Make sure to create a good seal with the steam inhaler with your mouth to ensure you inhale as much steam as possible.
  • Be sure not to add any oils or menthol/eucalyptus to the water as this can aggravate the voice. In a leaflet on voice care provided by the NHS it does say that 2 drops of camomile essential oil can be added to the water as it does contain an anti-inflammatory agent, I haven’t tried this myself but maybe worth a try.
  • Some say not to speak or whisper for at least 20 minutes after, I usually recommend light humming or mms after steaming to help keep the voices elasticity. Definitely avoid singing for at least 10 mins after steaming  to allow the vocal folds to cool.
  • If its cold outside, make sure you don’t rush out into it. Breathing cold air in after you have steamed will most certainly be a shock to the vocal folds.
  • Be careful not to tip it or use if its too hot for you! remember you are working with very hot water! 

A lot of people ask me about steaming times – It depends on what your voice needs, most people recommend 5-10mins as often as you feel you might need to. If my voice is suffering from the affects of a cold I will steam as much as I can bare! If you are using the plastic inhalers which you need to add boiling water too after a while the steam will stop so i’d advise to stop once there is no more obvious steam. If you need more boil the kettle and start again! In time you will learn how long to steam for. But remember the affects arent always so obvious with steaming. 

Steaming is probably one of your best tools in your Vocal SOS kit as a singer and it is something that is recommended by pretty much every form of specialist in voice from singing teacher to laryngologist. It is essential for people with tired and unhappy voices, and it is recommend for singers to steam two to three times a day for even healthy voices with medium to heavy vocal load.

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