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Taking Care of Your Throat

Perhaps it's because you feel a bit hoarse, perhaps it's because your throat feels dry. Whatever the reason, you've probably often felt the urge to clear your throat. The practice is so common that several words for it have entered the language: "Ahem!" and "Harrumph!" are two common terms that mimic the sounds people make in preparing the throat for speech.

A hearty harrumph may feel satisfying, but over the long run the habit will leave you even hoarser, experts say.

You've probably been clearing your throat for your entire life without really thinking about why. Here's the reason:

You clear your throat because your larynx--that upper part of the respiratory tract that contains the vocal cords--becomes irritated. The irritation can be caused by something as simple as an accumulation of mucus, perhaps from a cold or an allergy. Other common causes are dryness in the throat or a reaction to environmental tobacco smoke.

Clearing the throat is really an irritating, abrasive response to what you feel in your throat. The irritation causes swelling in the larynx, which in turn affects the way your vocal cords perform. Your voice may go from a well-modulated pitch to a breathy, raspy whisper.

Those who use their voices for a living, such as newscasters and opera stars, have to protect their throats through good health habits. You can follow their lead and protect your voice with these tips:

Break the throat-clearing habit

If you are overtaken by the urge to clear your throat, swallow twice instead -- that should help move the mucus along. A last-ditch effort is a very breathy cough, just to get the accumulated phlegm off the vocal cords.

Improve your air quality

Stay away from secondhand smoke and other sources of indoor and outdoor pollution as well. Heated air is dry air, another common cause of hoarseness, so be sure to use a humidifier in your home in the heating season.

Stay hydrated

Try taking small sips of water throughout the day to keep the mucus from building up. Lozenges and herbal tea with a twist of lemon help soothe an irritated throat.

Turn the volume down

If you're prone to temporary hoarseness, you may need to examine your speaking style.

Fight hoarseness with horseradish

That and other "hot" foods, such as jalapeno peppers, can bring temporary relief from a cold. That's because spicy foods open the nasal passages.

Know when to visit the doctor

If hoarseness lasts more than three weeks, or you experience a complete loss or severe change in your voice for more than a few days, contact your doctor. Allergies, thyroid problems, neurological disorders and trauma to the voice box are some causes of hoarseness that may require medical treatment.