December 1, 2020

Winter and COVID-19 bring new challenges to preserving vocal health this time of year

Note to journalists: Images of Preeti Sivasankar are available on Google Drive. Journalists visiting campus should follow visitor health guidelines.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As a child, Preeti Sivasankar witnessed the impact of communication disorders firsthand.

Her mom was a teacher who suffered from voice fatigue. Her father had a slight stutter and received treatment from a speech therapist.

It was those experiences that led Sivasankar (pronounced Pre-thi Shiv-shun-ker) to a career as a speech-language pathologist, where she explores how humans use – and more often overuse – the larynx and researches voice disorders, vocal production, hypersensitive airway and the aging voice.

Now, as a professor and department head at Purdue University’s Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences in the College of Health and Human Sciences, Sivasankar and her interdisciplinary research team are looking at ways to improve the health of human vocal folds – also commonly called vocal cords. The department is ranked No. 3 in Speech-Language Pathology and No. 9 in Audiology in U.S. News & World Report’s school rankings.

Sivasankar’s team of speech-language pathologists collaborate with speech scientists, biomedical engineers and veterinary pathologists to explore why speakers experience voice disruptions from prolonged speaking, aging, environmental exposures and disease. She has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to look deeper at the effects of pollution, reflux, dehydration, and exertion on vocal fold health.

Because one in 13 adults in the U.S. population suffers from some type of voice disorder, Sivasankar said, it is important to find out why and how these disorders happen and how one can prevent them, which can reduce long-term social and economic consequences. This is especially critical because many speakers such as teachers, public speakers, singers and actors depend on a healthy voice for their occupation.

Sivasankar said people with voice problems should continue to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic and take extra care with the onset of cold weather, flu season and low humidity, all of which negatively affect the vocal folds.

“The vocal folds vibrate up to 800 times a second. No other body tissue moves that quickly. It is not surprising then that vocal folds get damaged and cause voice problems. Most benign voice problems start gradually. When producing voice becomes taxing, you compensate and adjust how you speak. If speakers don’t compensate appropriately, voice problems can occur.” Sivasankar said. “We can prevent voice problems from occurring if we educate speakers on using their voices in a healthy way.”

There are several strategies that people can take to protect their vocal folds — addressing dehydration, using humidifiers, taking vocal naps, doing vocal stretches involving simple sounds,  enlisting vocal coaches and using microphones in certain settings.

Another change that affects people’s vocal folds is aging.

“Voice boxes begin to age in our late 40s. You can hear the changes as we get older,” Sivasankar said. “You have to use exercises to strengthen the vocal folds and to help address issues of inflammation of vocal folds. However, they have to be tailored to the speaker.”

As a vocal scientist, Sivasankar and her interdisciplinary team use medical equipment to conduct endoscopies to image the larynx, and computers and cameras equipped with microphones to capture audio and video signals in state-of-the-art research and clinical facilities. Air pressure and vocal fold movement data also are gathered.

“We try to understand how much you use your voice. We will ask a person questions, such as, ‘How do you use it on the weekend versus weekdays;’ ‘How often do you give the voice a break;’ What do you do with your voice during a workday. and do you have a family history of vocal issues,” Sivasankar said.

The team also will ask about one’s exposure to cigarettes and vaping items, dust and other air particulates. Air particulates may settle on the vocal folds first before making their way into a person’s lungs. Contaminants can settle on the vocal folds and can cause irritations and issues for a while.

“We really want to prevent contaminants in the airway,” Sivasankar said.

At the end of the day, vocal fold care falls to each person, who has to decide how to take care and use one’s voice.

“You need to use your voice strategically as a speaker,” Sivasankar said.

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges. Ranked the No. 5 Most Innovative University in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, Purdue delivers world-changing research and out-of-this-world discovery. Committed to hands-on and online, real-world learning, Purdue offers a transformative education to all. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels, enabling more students than ever to graduate debt-free. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap at https://purdue.edu/

About Purdue University Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences

Purdue SLHS is a top-ranked department (No. 3 in Speech-Language Pathology and No. 9 in Audiology; U.S. News & World Report) with research and clinical efforts to mechanistically investigate and treat a variety of hearing, speaking, language, and swallowing disorders. Its state-of-the-art research and clinical laboratories facilitate cutting-edge scientific discoveries and a committed engagement with citizens of Indiana through top-quality clinical service delivery. The department supports stellar education of its students through four pre-eminent degree programs. Visit https://www.purdue.edu/hhs/slhs/ to learn more.

Writer: Media contact: Matthew Oates, 765-586-7496 (cell), oatesw@purdue.edu, @mo_oates

Source: Preeti Sivasankar, preeti@purdue.edu

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PHOTO CAPTION:

Cold weather and COVID-19 can spell trouble for vocal health, says Preeti Sivasankar, professor and head of Purdue’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca McElhoe)

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