How viruses like the flu can damage your vocal cords

Allergies & ENT

by Stephanie Fort, MM, MS CCC-SLP

Apr 2, 2018

Winter is always a difficult season, with upper respiratory infections such as the common cold, cough and worst of all, the flu. It is quite common to experience laryngitis during an upper respiratory infection or other virus.

Laryngitis results when the voice box — or larynx — becomes inflamed, causing you to experience difficulty making sound, or hoarseness. Usually, laryngitis resolves once the infection clears up. However, even as the weather becomes warmer and upper respiratory infections begin to wane, sometimes patients continue to complain of persistent hoarseness — even once other symptoms have passed.

It isn’t normal to experience a change in voice quality and/or laryngitis that lasts longer than a couple of weeks. This may be the sign of a functional voice change, also known as muscle tension dysphonia (MTD).

MTD is one of the most common voice disorders. It is a pattern of overuse, in which the muscles surrounding the vocal cords work too hard. Even though the muscles are contracting in an attempt to increase loudness or improve vocal quality, this pattern of excess muscular tension actually prevents the larynx from working efficiently, thereby reducing vocal resonance and impairing vocal cord vibration.

This inefficient pattern can develop for both medical and non-medical reasons. One cause is upper respiratory infections and laryngitis. Attempting to talk or even whisper when you have laryngitis can result in a retraining of the muscle patterns in the larynx, causing hoarseness to develop.

Some common signs of muscle tension dysphonia include:

  • Breathy, weak, whispery or strained vocal quality
  • Voice cutting in and out
  • Difficulty projecting the voice
  • Aches and tightness in the throat area, sometimes even pain when speaking
  • Sensitivity to the neck when touched
  • Voice that fatigues easily, becoming weaker as the voice is used
  • Feeling the need to clear the throat more often
  • Changes in vocal pitch range
  • Feeling of a lump in the throat

The best course of treatment for muscle tension dysphonia is voice therapy from a voice-specialized speech pathologist. Voice therapists work to modify vocal behaviors and can help you retrain your muscles in order to unload tension in over-worked muscles and promote vocal efficiency.

Many people undergo evaluation with multiple specialists before getting to the root of this problem. Living with a severe voice change can be debilitating and life-altering — particularly if the problem lasts for months before being properly diagnosed.

If you notice a voice change or are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, consider visiting a physician specialist in laryngeal and voice disorders for evaluation.

About the Author

Stephanie Fort is a speech-language pathologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White The Voice Center.

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