"It's that time of year again..."
Autumn is my favourite season, hands down. It always has been. Maybe it's because I'm an autumn baby, but I look forward to the leaves crisping and curling and delicately dancing in the wind like feathers. I swaddle myself in knitted gloves and scarves to the point of over-heating and watch the world slowly, subtly shift its hues to reds and golds. I am hit by dazzling, early morning sunshine as the cold tingles and bites my cheeks, and I feel an energising kick. I'm a sucker for the old-fashioned romance of fireworks and bonfire smoke, and the seasonal permission to begin mulling wine and cider, filling my kitchen with the heady scent of cloves and cinnamon, can never come too soon in my opinion. Ubiquitous mounds of vibrant, happy pumpkins appear as if from nowhere, colouring the streets a jubilant, joyous orange. Did I mention that I love autumn?
Yet, autumn is a double-edged sword. Coupled with my syrupy sentimentalism comes a stomach clenching dread, an enormous fear of -you guessed it- sniffling, irritating and often debilitating colds and viruses. A fear of streaming sinuses, hacking coughs, soaring temperatures and sleep deprivation - yes. But more than this, a fear of cancelled gigs, lost work, all-consuming panic at the imagined damage to my professional reputation and an empty bank account. Like all singers, my voice is my money-maker. But unlike other musicians, if my instrument is damaged, I can't borrow a pal's until it comes back from the repair shop. Not to mention that when a singer loses their voice, they lose their identity and their life-force.
How fortunate for me, then, that I'm so susceptible to every little trifling bug that passes my way on its annual rounds. Others may be laid up for a couple of days, sweating it out and watching box sets, but when I catch a cold, it will undoubtedly waste no time moving into my chest and setting up camp for weeks, sometimes months.
Until this year, that is!
This year I had warning. My students and clients have been dropping like flies with many of them unable to attend lessons for several weeks. It's a particularly nasty virus that's been crawling its murky way around London this season. Read: panic stations and antibacterial hand gel at the ready. When I inevitably caught the bug, I had a plan of action and it worked. The result? A mild cold for a couple of days that barely bothered me, never spread to my chest, and an unaffected voice. Hurrah! Success! Now I want to share with you how I managed to dodge the bullet.
Some of you will be happy to buy over-the-counter medications, but for those of you who prefer just to give nature and your immune system a helping hand with the healing process, scroll on down for my top tips for a speedy and natural recovery.
*Remember: act quickly at the first signs of illness to give yourself the best chance of staving it off. Use all steps in conjunction with each other, or as many as you can.
**N.B. Colds are caused by viruses, rather than bacteria, so antibiotics are inappropriate and ineffective. This advice is for upper respiratory tract illness. In my experience, little will shift a full-blown chest infection other than antibiotics, so do go and see your doctor if you think that's what you have. Don't be a martyr.
1. Drink fluids, drink fluids and then drink some more.
Doctors will all agree, the best thing you can do is flush out your system. This means water and herbal teas. It does not mean sugary drinks or coffee. Green tea is great for the immune system, as are hot drinks generally, so guzzle it. For an effective and super-comforting beverage, brew up some lemon (antiseptic), honey (antimicrobial) and (twist!) turmeric (anti-inflammatory). The powdered stuff is fine. It's so delicious it's almost a treat! Cinnamon is also an effective anti-viral and helps to lower fever, so add it to your teas.
2. Gargle Salt
Or apple cider vinegar. I recommend keeping a glass of salt water by the bathroom sink and having a good gargle every time you go in there (which should be A LOT because of all that water you're glugging).
Listen to your body. Listen closely. Whilst exercise is great at boosting the immune system and preventing illness in the first place, it's important to get lots of sleep when you do come down with an illness, particularly in the initial stages. Don't feel bad about cancelling that thing that you said you'd go to, or calling in sick. You are genuinely sick. Give your body the best chance you can to fight, and your future self will thank you for it.
4. Voice Rest
When we are ill, our vocal folds become swollen, enlarged and inflamed. Singing when your vocal folds are in this condition heightens the risk of irritating them further and causing injury and is best avoided. But vocal rest means resting your speaking voice, too. Minimise conversations wherever you can. Text or email, rather than using the phone.
If singing is not your main profession, then relax. Cancel your singing lesson, but give your teacher lots of notice. They won't want to catch your cold anyway.
If you're a professional singer and this is your livelihood, then you also need to relax. Stressful as illness is, stress itself is bad for the voice, so don't multiply your vocal woes. Try to calmly assess your work situation. What can you cancel? What can you find cover for? What engagements do you need to honour and what, realistically, can your voice manage? Don't feel guilty, this is not your fault. Do try and line up some just-in-case cover, and reach out to your band mates/ producers/ agents and explain your situation. Tell them your recovery can only be judged on a day-by-day basis. Communication is key, here.
Steaming is a wonderfully effective way of loosening mucous and phlegm, decongesting your sinuses and providing moisture to your nasal passages. A few drops of olbas oil or eucalyptus are a great decongestant, but can be drying for the voice, so only use them on days when you won't need to sing. You can also add herbs such as rosemary, thyme and oregano directly to the water.
You can purchase inexpensive and portable face steamers online and from pharmacies. But equally as effective is to boil a kettle, fill a bowl with the water and fling a towel over your head. Aim for 15 minutes if you can, and make sure that the water is not too hot; steam can burn.
6. Eat yourself well
At the first sign of illness:
Cut out white foods from your diet (bread, starch, grains, sugar) as they suppress your immune system.
Dairy products are often found on similar lists of foods to exclude, as received wisdom is that dairy stimulates mucous production. However, this is moot: there is no scientific evidence for this. And a bowl of yoghurt with some blueberries could be a wonderful source of probiotics which might aid your recovery.
Not one for the veggies and vegans among you, but I swear by chicken stock. And I'm not the only one (read this). Buy the best quality, organic chicken that you can find and make your own bone broth. Use it in soups, or add some lemon and herbs and drink it straight. Healing heaven.
To power up your immunity levels, choose foods which will boost your intake of vitamins D (oily fish, mushrooms), C (dark, leafy greens, onions, oranges) and zinc (spinach, nuts).
Garlic is fantastic, but loses its benefits after a few seconds of being cooked. Crush some into a glass of water and quickly down it. You won't even taste it.
Coconut oil is well known to boost the immune system, is high in lauric acid, and has myriad other health benefits. Stir into tea or have in smoothies.
7. Wrap Up Warm
Sweat it out. Keep cosy, especially at night, and give your body less work to do. Scarves, socks and hot water bottles; what could be nicer?
8. Freshen Up
Obvious as it seems, this is often overlooked. Marinating in a room hot with your own germs isn't conducive to recovery. Change your sheets and toothbrush regularly and open the windows to air out the room (provided it's not minus 5 outside).
9. Natural Cough Syrup
This is heavy on the sugar, but a really great substitute for singers who prefer to use natural remedies as opposed to pharmacy-bought cough medicines. It keeps well in the fridge, so be prepared and make a batch now, so you have it on hand. Click here for the recipe.
10. Don't Whisper or Clear Your Throat
Ever. This only makes things worse and agitates your vocal folds further. If you can't speak, don't. If you must, speak quietly but normally.
So, there you have it. Now I want to hear from you! Have you been hit with a cold? How has it affected your singing? Did any of these tips work for you? Do top tips for getting better naturally? Write in the comments below and let me know...