Your voice is how you express yourself — but while its importance is undeniable, you may not be aware of how to properly care for it.

Voice damage is much more common than many people think. About 7.5 million people in the United States have trouble using their voice, facing problems such as pitch, loudness or quality. Adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors can help you ward off vocal problems. Even if your voice is currently healthy, following these five suggestions could enhance and extend the health of your voice for years to come.

1. Quit Smoking

The health benefits of nonsmoking are no secret, but nonsmokers may also suffer fewer vocal problems. This is because tobacco can result in generalized inflammation of vocal cord tissue, which can lead to damage or dysplasia (precancerous cells). Smoking also increases the risk of throat cancer.

2. Stay Hydrated

Drinking enough water has wide-reaching benefits for many parts of the body, including the vocal folds. These are bands of smooth muscle within the larynx: a hollow structure connected to the windpipe, also called the voice box. The muscles vibrate and snap together when we speak, producing sound waves. Vocal folds are coated with mucus to provide lubrication and avoid damage. Proper hydration helps keep this mucus strong and effective. Six to eight glasses of water a day are recommended. Otherwise, you are at risk for throat irritation, and using your voice may require more effort.

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3. Eat Healthy

You might not know it, but eating a well-balanced diet can be enormously beneficial for your overall vocal health. Vitamins A, E and C help keep the mucus membranes in your throat healthy, so eating foods rich in these nutrients can help you ward off damage. This includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

4. Avoid Vocal Overexertion

Your vocal folds consist of muscle, ligaments and a delicate cover — and just like any musculoskeletal tissue, strenuous use can cause injury. Excessive shouting or loud speaking can injure your vocal folds. However, the opposite is also true: whispering places a strain on your voice.

Voice production is caused by rapid vibration of the vocal folds — up to millions of times per day! Because of this, the vocal folds are subject to potential injury. The vocal folds repair normal levels of strain without any noticeable change in voice, up to a point. However, overuse or misuse of your voice could affect the natural healing process and lead to permanent damage. If you notice any change in your voice, going on a period of vocal rest will give your voice time to recover and can avoid more serious injury.

5. Breathe Properly

Most of the time, we breathe without a second thought. However, being more mindful about our breath can help prevent vocal strain. Taking deep breaths from the chest or diaphragm when speaking avoids putting too much strain on the throat. This kind of breath exercise is common for singers or professional speakers, but it is good practice for everyone.

These tips can help to prevent losing your voice, but if you experience repeated hoarseness, vocal strain or other vocal concerns lasting longer than two weeks, the voice experts at the Rick and Tina Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery can help diagnose and treat your issue.

To request an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.