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Staying Healthy During the Winter Cold and Flu Season

Mary Ann: In my work with professional singers, particularly those who perform night after night, I've observed that there is a great deal of vocal abuse that occurs because of lack of good health habits: the hours are long and typically go late into the night. Many of the performers have young children, so they're falling into bed at 2 a.m. and rising at 6:30 or 7am, with perhaps a quick nap in the afternoon before the children come home from school. They start their performing shift tired and do that day after day. They are also sick multiple times every winter because their bodies simply don't have the stamina to resist a virus; secondary infections such as bronchitis are common. This same pattern is also common in high school students, particularly those who are preparing for college studies in the performing arts: they are in school all day, have rehearsal for several hours each day after school, and typically carry heavy academic loads. Last year, I surveyed the fifty 15- to 18-year-olds on my schedule and found that they sleep an average of 5 hours per night. And they are sick an average of 4 times each winter.

Two years ago, I started offering all singers the same advice: "Treat yourself as though you are sick, from October - March, even when you aren't sick." I've surveyed several physicians on how to do that and this is the consensus:

1. Sleep more. If your schedule really doesn't permit 7-8 hours per night, find a way to take power naps during the day. Even 10 minutes curled up in a seat in a theater is better than a cup of coffee.

2. Hydrate. For the high schoolers: "Do not share water bottles!" Dr. Stock: Hydration does not occur by drinking large amounts of water right before a performance, it has to occur daily and constantly.

3. Mary Ann: Steam. At least once a day for 10 minutes. ("Mary Ann's rule: 10 minutes is great; 5 minutes is good; 2 minutes is better than nothing.") Steaming should be finished 30 minutes before singing, to allow vocal cords time to absorb the hydration. Dr. Stock: Steam helps in thinning secretions and lubricating the respiratory tract. Then secretions are less likely to adhere to the vocal folds.

4. Mary Ann: If you are routinely dealing with sinus congestion, use a nasal rinse. Dr Stock: Nasal rinses should be isotonic (same consistency as the body fluids). I use 2 teaspoons salt, one teaspoon baking soda, to one quart water. This is what we have patients use after sinus surgery to beak up crusts and mucous in the nose. This is important with colds and in arid climates.

5. Mary Ann: Wash your hands! When I first started teaching, I directed children and teens in musicals. I was sick constantly, averaging a new "bug" every three weeks. I noticed that our family's pediatrician was rarely ill and asked his secret. He said, "It's all the hand washing between patients." He shared that he hadn't been sick in five years. I decided to adopt the hand washing habit and average 10 times per day. I've been sick only three times in the past ten years.

6. Find an emergency immune support that works for you. I like "Kick Ass Immune Support" by Wish Garden Herbs. Since singers spit on me all day, I take it if anyone in my studio shows signs of an oncoming illness on a day when I'm feeling tired. I also carry a bottle when traveling and take it as soon as I exit the plane. Dr Stock: I use "immune complex" on a daily basis. Most of the studies are anecdotal with patient testimonials, but I seem to feel better. I have never canceled a patient in 33 years because of illness.

7. Mary Ann: Eat clean. I'm not going to quote statistics on eating less sugar; you can find those everywhere. Just in terms of limiting mucus, eating less sugar is a good thing.

Reprinted with permission. International Voice Teachers of Mix ( Weekly Teaching Tip. February 14, 2017

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