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It’s not just talking on your cell phone — all those conference calls and virtual meetings may also be taking a toll on your vocal cords.

We’ve all heard someone talking loudly on their cell phone in public, but chances are we’ve all been guilty of it, too. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “cell yell,” isn’t just irritating to listen to — it can actually harm the speaker’s vocal cords. Here’s why we do it and how to keep our voices healthy during calls and virtual meetings.

What is cell yell, and why do we do it?

Cell yell describes a person’s tendency to talk louder than usual when using a cell phone or speaker phone, explains Lauren Timmons Sund, CCC-SLP, speech pathology director at the USC Voice Center at Keck Medicine of USC.

“The term predates the age of videoconferencing, but more recent research shows the same concept applies,” she says.

In fact, one small study found that people on the phone or video calls talk with more than four times the vocal intensity as they do with in-person conversations.

One reason we talk louder over the phone or on a video call is because there’s more background noise we’re trying to be heard over, according to Timmons Sund. We also may not be able to hear ourselves talk very well, and the psychological perception of greater distance from the listener may cause us to raise our voices too, she adds.

How can cell yell damage your voice?

Our voice works as air from our lungs is passed through our vocal folds, also called vocal cords, which are two bands of muscle on either side of the larynx, or voice box, in our throats.

“Talking louder than usual for extended periods of time increases your risk of injury to the vocal folds, which can result in vocal fatigue and hoarseness,” Timmons Sund says.

With so many people working virtually now, this phenomenon appears to be on the rise, according to Eugenia Castro, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist at the USC Voice Center.

“At the USC Voice Center, we are seeing more patients who are noticing voice problems related to more frequent and longer virtual communications, such as vocal fatigue and strain, feeling tension or a lump in the throat or voice changes,” Castro says.

And you might not even realize you’re hurting your voice until after it happens.

“Unlike in other areas of the body, voice hoarseness typically occurs without the warning sign of pain, and people tend to push their voice out — leading to further injury to the vocal folds,” says Michael Johns, III, MD, director of the USC Voice Center and a professor of clinical otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

How is cell yell different from regular laryngitis?

Voice hoarseness and laryngitis can occur when you’re sick with a cold, but losing your voice from cell yell isn’t the same.

“The two most common causes of hoarseness are acute laryngitis, which is caused by a viral infection, and voice-use related vocal fold trauma, which is caused by vocal overuse and misuse,” Johns says.

How you can protect your voice

If you’re spending a lot of time talking on the phone or on video calls, Castro recommends taking the following steps to protect your voice against damage:

  • Give it a rest. Incorporate short periods of complete silence throughout the day, about 15 minutes. “We like to call these vocal naps,” she says.
  • Drink up. Stay well-hydrated and sip water throughout the day. Dry vocal folds are harder to vibrate, which can lead to vocal fatigue and hoarseness.
  • Do vocal warm-ups. Like a singer or a newscaster, practicing some easy voice exercises like a lip trill or hum can get your vocal folds ready to use.
  • Monitor your volume. There are a couple of ways to monitor how loud you’re talking: Use headphones instead of just the speaker on your computer and/or use only one ear bud instead of two. You can also help out your coworkers’ voices by muting yourself when you’re not talking to reduce background noise.
  • Check your mic. When considering headphones and microphones for virtual communication, opt for devices that provide background noise suppression and live monitoring of your microphone signal. Live monitoring features allow you to hear your own voice better to monitor how loud you are talking.

How do you know when to see a doctor?

If you’ve lost your voice or experience voice changes, start by resting your voice and don’t push to get sound out.

“Most of the time, acute laryngitis and voice-use related vocal cord trauma resolve on their own with voice rest and time — within a week or two,” Johns says. “Hoarseness or voice change lasting longer than two weeks is not normal and needs to be evaluated; similarly, frequent episodes of loss of voice are concerning,” Johns says.

Voice problems are best treated when addressed early, Johns notes, and treatment is effective.

Evaluation is straightforward and done comfortably in the office using a specialized procedure called laryngeal videostroboscopy, Johns explains. This includes inserting tiny cameras in your throat and nose to view your vocal folds.

If you are experiencing voice symptoms, such as vocal fatigue or voice changes, voice therapy can help you find a more optimal way to produce your voice, rather than straining your throat.

— By Tina Donvito