What is throat clearing?
Throat clearing is a natural response from our body when it’s trying to remove excessive or thick mucus, or soothing a dry, tickly throat - whether from an illness, an allergy, acid reflux, eating certain foods, smoking or dehydration.
Throat clearing is what we call a “phonotrauma” which is a non-phonatory behaviour (like persistent coughing, loud sneezing, weight-lifting with vocal strain or even grunting, like you sometimes hear with professional tennis players!).
However these non-phonatory behaviours can over-time be very abusive for our voice (particularly if we combine a few together, like when we’re sick). Our vocal folds are being repeatedly slammed together at high speed which can cause irritation and injury.
Throat clearing is incredibly common even when we’re perfectly healthy. It can often become an unconscious habit that’s developed over time, maybe due to nerves or anxiety before for example public speaking.
The problem is the more we clear our throat the more irritated our vocal folds will become and the more likely we’ll need to continue to clear our throat. So the cycle repeats. We need to break the cycle and understand what’s driving it.
What can I do now?
Hydration is probably the most important thing – drink A LOT of water and use a steamer if you’re really sick to try and thin the mucus. We need mucus for our vocal folds to vibrate efficiently, but the mucus should be thin not sticky and thick (like it is when we’re sick).
When you have the urge to clear your throat try one (or a few) of these instead:
1) Sip water
2) Hard swallow a couple of times
3) Swallow with a chin tuck
4) Yawn and swallow
5) Do a very quiet “mmm” and then swallow
Is this a chronic issue for you?
If so, I’d firstly recommend speaking to your doctor to check for any underlying health issues that you’re not aware of (e.g. a symptom of acid reflux is excessive mucus and throat clearing).
If you know it’s not health-related (and you’ve reviewed your diet) consider investing in voice training. This is particularly important if you’re a singer or have heavy speaking demands. You could be inadvertently irritating your vocal folds in the way you sing or speak.
Finally start to pay attention to when you’re clearing your throat. Can you link it to a specific health issue (e.g. hayfever) or do you feel perfectly healthy? Are you instead feeling nervous or anxious perhaps before an important presentation or performance?
If it’s leaning more towards a response to nerves and anxiety, try some deep belly breaths beforehand instead. When you feel the urge to clear your throat, instead take a sip of water before you start speaking or singing.