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What Should Singers Do When the Air Quality is So Bad?

Well, it’s “fire season” in California again.

When the AQI goes up, singers need to take into account the toll that bad air quality can take on the human voice. Everyone who depends on their voice for their livelihood should consider a different strategy of vocal health and hygiene during times like this. Teachers, podcasters, physicians, and anyone who uses Zoom to get their business done could benefit from a better vocal health approach during the new fifth season of the year.

As air enters the body, it first enters the nasal passages where it is warmed, humidified, and filtered. When the air is dry and full of smoke, the nasal passages can’t effectively accomplish this work. After air leaves the nasal passages it enters the pharynx. If you look in your throat past the uvula, you may notice some redness or swelling in the back of the throat. After the air leaves the nasal passages and pharynx, your larynx and vocal folds are the last line of defense before the lungs.

The same pollutants that irritate the lungs can irritate the vocal folds and membranes of the nose and throat. These areas can become inflamed, creating an environmentally caused “pharyngitis” or even “laryngitis”.

Even if you aren’t experiencing breathing-related symptoms, your voice, and the surrounding tissues, can become compromised from smoke inhalation. In addition to the description of the typical scratchy or hoarse voice, your voice may initially lose elasticity and range as the folds swell.

Simply put, your high notes might take a temporary hiatus until the air quality returns and your body can address the vocal inflammation.

Even Singing Birds Have a Hard Time!

If you’re feeling vocally impaired from poor air quality, you’re not alone. Even the birds seem to have a hard time singing with pollutants.

“Researchers at Cornell University found that black-capped chickadees who are exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) lost their ability to properly sing a two-note mating song … Hormone receptors in the birds’ brains are affected by exposure to environmental PCBs, causing the chickadees to sing off-key.”

I’m not sure how they measured the pitches of the birds, but check it out for yourself.

How Do You Know If Poor Air Is At The Root Of Your Symptoms?

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference between smoke-induced problems and problems due to poor rehearsal techniques. Chances are, if you have any new symptoms during poor air quality, the air is likely a culprit. This article lists just some of the symptoms of exposure to wildfires listed by the EPA.

Most health-related lists don’t even begin to touch the vocal symptoms of bad air quality.

What Can We Do? Here’s what the EPA recommends (with my comments in parenthesis):

  • Stay indoors if you can, with the windows and doors closed. (During high AQI, don’t open windows, and consider taping the ventilation in bathrooms shut)

  • If you have air conditioning, run it continuously, on the manual cycle. It’s also helpful to close the fresh air intake so that smoke doesn’t get inside the house. If your system allows for it, install a high-efficiency air filter, classified as MERV 13 or higher.

  • Portable air cleaners can also reduce indoor particulate matter in small spaces. (I have a nice HEPA filter in my main living space. HEPA, medical-grade filters will work best)

  • Avoid frying food, which can increase indoor smoke.

  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activities like exercising or mowing the lawn. (Does anyone even HAVE that much of a lawn in California these days?)

  • Don’t smoke cigarettes. (or Vape, or smoke anything, you shouldn’t be doing this under ANY circumstances as a singer regardless of the AQI)

  • And though exercising outdoors can be a great way to stay healthy, the 101-150 range on the Air Quality Index is probably the highest level at which it remains safe to do so. (Take into account that even the 50-100 AQI range poses an extra burden on the lungs and cardiovascular system over time, so you may be more tired than usual, and find recovery from exercise takes considerably longer. When the body is fatigued we are more prone to constriction, as well)

Do Masks Help?

With the pandemic, we are all wearing masks these days. But that cloth mask won’t do much for smoke inhalation. According to the EPA, an N95 respirator mask can filter out some particles. Unfortunately, it can’t filter out the harmful gases in wildfire smoke, like carbon monoxide. Your best protection is staying indoors with a medical-grade filter running. If you MUST be outdoors, wear that N95 mask, but know that there is a risk still involved.

Keep an Eye on the AQI.

Most everyone with a smartphone has an AQI app these days. If you don’t have one installed, it’s time to use one. Before your morning jog with the dog, checking the AQI may need to become a determining factor of how far, how fast, and whether or not an N95 mask is part of that routine, or whether or not you even step outdoors in the morning.

So What Does That Mean For You As A Singer, or Someone Who Depends On Their Voice?

  • Stay hydrated. Harvard Health suggests that this varies greatly from person to person, depending on the medication and other health factors. The minimum 4-6 cups of water per day can increase by two to three cups per hour with extreme heat and activity. Read More Here.

  • Run an indoor, HEPA-grade air purifier.

  • Run your humidifier to keep your indoor humidity between 30-50%. Dry air increases irritation and the risk of infection in the lungs; too much humidity (which is unlikely in the fire season, but theoretically could happen indoors), can encourage mold growth. Read More Here.

  • Recognize the cumulative fatigue on the body and factor in more rest. You may need to head to bed earlier and sleep later for a while.

  • Sing and speak for shorter lengths of time and take frequent breaks. Avoid loud talking and singing, especially outdoors.

  • Limit outdoor exercise.

  • If the AQI is higher than 150, consider cancelling rehearsals until the air quality improves.

Your physician and public health officials are more concerned with respiratory distress caused by smoke because these symptoms can turn an average person into a hospital patient.

But for those of us who depend upon a healthy voice for our livelihoods, the vocal symptoms can have far-reaching consequences. When it comes to your voice, you need to be the watch guard for your own vocal health.

Take care of your voice, and use greater caution and vocal hygiene, especially when external conditions place greater stress on the body.

Take care of yourself! You’re worth it!

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