Staying hydrated is essential to keep your voice working easily and efficiently. The main way to do this is by drinking fluids, preferably water. The NHS Eatwell Guide says we should drink 6 to 8 cups or glasses of fluid a day. So sip little and often - ideally around 100 ml every 15-20 minutes.
There is no substitute for drinking enough. Remember, however, that it can take up to 4 hours for the water you drink to reach your vocal folds, hydrating them from the inside out. This is where steaming comes in - it is great for getting topical moisture to your larynx quickly and directly.
Steaming is voice care on a budget; even the most expensive option is cheaper in the long run than throat pastilles or lozenges. It's also a perfect salve for tired voices and while it won't cure a head cold or a throat infection, it will help to soothe and relieve swelling on the vocal folds.
How to steam
Steaming is easy! It involves boiling water, pouring the boiling water into a bowl or purpose-made steam inhaler and then breathing in the steam through your mouth or nose. There are several ways to steam at home, so try them all and see what works best for you.
How to steam safely
You'll be working with boiling water, so it's really important to be mindful of what you are doing so that you don't burn yourself or others.
If you have purchased a steam inhaler, make sure to follow the guidelines for the product you are using.
Don't inhale steam immediately from the just-boiled water. Let the boiling water sit for a couple of minutes, then carefully pour it into your vessel of choice and inhale the steam from the (still) very hot water.
3 options for steaming at home or on the go
1. Steaming for free (almost)
This first option is a heat-proof bowl and a towel.
Pour hot water into the bowl. Cover your head with the towel and place your face over the bowl, creating a tent for you to breathe in the steam. Be careful not to burn your face!
If you need to, you can support your head with your hands.
Inhale the steam either through your nose or your mouth. You can do some gentle sirens, which is great if you are recovering from a cold.
Note: Some people add aromatic or essential oils like Olbas or menthol to the hot water, but I recommend inhaling good old fashioned steam only.
2. Steaming on a budget
The second option is a steam inhaler from a large retailer.
There are many good steam inhalers on the market today. They are usually made of plastic and tend to cost around £10-£15. These steamers are compact, easy to store at home and perfect for travelling. They are also easy to clean.
These steam inhalers usually work by unscrewing the top, filling a basin with hot water, screwing the top back on and breathing through a spout.
Many are particularly good to use if you have or are recovering from a cold because the steam is targeted through your nose or mouth, depending on the model. In addition to delivering moisture to your vocal folds, the steam also helps loosen any built-up mucus and catarrh.
3. Steaming with the stars
The third option is Dr Nelson's Steam Inhaler.
Dr Nelson's Steam Inhaler was invented in the early 1860s, but is still very much used today - particularly among vocal coaches and West End performers.
The steamer is a ceramic, double-valved pot. To use it, you remove the mouthpiece and half-fill the pot with boiling water. You then replace the mouthpiece and inhale the steam through the glass straw.
The steam inhaler comes in three sizes: small, medium and large. Costing upwards of £65, it's one of the more expensive steamers on the market. From my experience, though, it is well worth the cost because it's very efficient at bringing moisture straight into the larynx.
All these options have worked really well for me over the years. There's nothing fancy about them, but each of these three ways can help you take care of your vocal health, especially if you need to use your voice through the cold and flu season.
Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.