In many ways, your voice is as unique as your fingerprint. It's produced in your throat by two bands of muscle tissue called vocal folds, which sit at the top of your windpipe. The larynx, commonly called the voice box, houses the vocal folds. When you speak, the folds come together as air from your lungs rushes through them. The air blowing through the folds makes them vibrate. The vibrations make sound waves that travel through your throat, nose, and mouth. The size and shape of these structures create the pitch, loudness, and tone of your voice. That's why each person's voice sounds so different.
"Your voice adds a layer of meaning to your words," says Dr. Lana Shekim, a voice and speech expert at NIH. Whether you're joyful, disappointed, or grieving, your voice helps to convey your emotions to others, with or without words. Even before infants can speak, they make happy or distressed vocalization to communicate with caregivers.
People who depend on their voices for work—like teachers, lawyers, singers, and politicians—are at risk of overusing their voice. Overuse and misuse of your voice such as screaming, cheering, or talking above loud background noises can strain your vocal folds. It’s best to avoid such activities. Perhaps you've woken up with a hoarse voice after attending a concert or a sporting event. Repeatedly clearing your throat; a raw, achy throat; a deeper voice; or a sudden inability to hit high notes when singing are also signs of an unhealthy voice.
"We often protect a musical instrument, like a violin, by carefully storing it inside a wooden box lined with soft velvet," says Shekim. "But we don't think about protecting our own voices in the same way. The truth is: we can buy a new violin, but we cannot buy a new larynx." It's important to identify and avoid behaviors that might harm your voice. For example, instead of speaking loudly when talking to a large group, consider arranging for a microphone. On days that your voice sounds raspy or hoarse, protect it by not straining or overusing it. Choose a quiet restaurant when meeting friends for a meal.
"In keeping your voice healthy, always remember, what is good for your well-being is good for your voice," Shekim adds. Drinking plenty of water and using your voice less should help relieve hoarseness from misuse or overuse. Although many voice conditions result from misuse or overuse, other voice disorders may be related to disease. Voice disorders may result from growths on the vocal folds, gastric reflux, head or neck cancer, neurological problems, or other causes.
If you think you have a voice problem, talk with your health care provider. They may recommend that you see a specialist—such as an ear, nose, and throat doctor (otolaryngologist) or a speech-language pathologist—to help diagnose and treat voice issues.
Written by: NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison
Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Managing Editor: Tianna Hicklin, Ph.D.
Illustrator: Alan Defibaugh