You're loud, you're proud and everyone knows it.
We hear you, Super Fan.
The bad news is that you have more to worry about on Super Bowl Sunday than whether the Seahawks down the Broncos. All that boisterous cheering could leave you speechless – literally. "Screaming is the ultimate form of vocal trauma," says L. Arick Forrest, director of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Voice and Swallowing Disorders Clinic. "Injury can occur not only in the stadium, but also cheering at a party or bar when there's increased background noise. Having the Super Bowl in a cold climate also increases the likelihood of damage – the cold, dry air will cause the moisture that protects our vocal cords to evaporate quicker."
Indeed, vocal abuse – or using your voice in a way that causes injury – can lead to bumps or calluses on the vocal cords, and sometimes cause permanent damage to your voice. After all, our voice box is a "delicate structure," says Robert Buckmire, director of the University of North Carolina Voice Center. The most common voice-related injuries are chronic, which means they're caused by the way we use our voice on an ongoing basis. Acute injuries stem from "abusive" behaviors such as yelling or talking in noisy situations, Buckmire says, and these are typically more traumatic – they can lead to a vocal cord hemorrhage, or a tear or other injury to the vocal cords.
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Under normal speaking conditions, our vocal cords vibrate 100 to 200 times per second, Forrest says. Yelling, or even talking loudly, requires that the cords are held together with more force, so pressure can build up underneath them. "The greater the pressure created under the vocal cords, the louder the voice," Forrest says. "Normal talking is similar to clapping your hands softly, while yelling is like a loud forceful clap. Damage can even occur with a single loud yell."
Exactly what kind of damage that means varies from person to person. Most commonly, yelling causes swelling as vocal tissues react to the trauma. If you rest your voice, this kind of damage will likely heal within a few hours or a couple days, depending on the amount of swelling – so long as you speak in normal tones. If you can't resist continued shouting, you may develop a blister or polyp, which can take months to heal. Voice rest or speech therapy, or even surgery, is necessary depending on size and shape of the polyp.
If you damage your voice during a sporting event, you'll likely be able to tell the next day. Your voice may start cracking, or it will sound husky or hoarse, Buckmire says. You may find talking painful, or experience a tickle or irritation in your throat, as though you need to cough. Or, you could flat-out lose your voice, since your vocal cords aren't able to produce sufficient vibrations. "A person might notice that their pitch gets a little lower from the heaviness" of their vocal cords filling up with fluid, says James Thomas, a laryngologist based in Portland, Ore. "They may even begin to feel an aching from muscle discomfort in their neck from the acute overuse and the extra effort it takes to get the stiff vocal cords to vibrate."
Of course, vocal damage isn't inevitable. Consider these strategies to show your spirit and keep your voice intact:
• Be aware. "I would say that awareness of vocal behaviors and risks is most important," Buckmire says. And then, when possible, use that knowledge to avoid vocally-abusive behavior in situations that encourage it.
• Steer clear of smoke and alcohol. These dry out your throat, increasing the risk of damage.
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• Warm up beforehand. And we don't mean tailgating before going into the stadium. Experts say vocal warm ups can help prepare the cords for us. "This includes things like singing scales," Forrest says.
• Stay hydrated. Keeping your voice box moist is crucial – it will help protect your vocal cords. If you're not drinking enough, and the lining that covers your cords dries out, friction increases, leading to irritation and swelling. Stick with water, Forrest suggests.