There are various speech problems reported among those with PASC. Speech is a complex movement behavior that requires the coordination of over 100 muscles within a short timeframe and depends on a well-functioning brain. An infection may damage the connections between nerve cells in the brain that are used to produce speech. Medical care received during hospitalization, such as intubation, can also provoke changes in your body that lead to voice changes and speech problems. As a result, you may notice new or worsening speech problems due to COVID-19.
Like many others with PASC, you may struggle to speak clearly and fluently after COVID-19. PASC speech problems include:
- Stuttering: Speech disruptions, which include repeating or elongating sounds and difficulty saying certain sounds.
- Word-finding difficulty: Forgetting a word or phrase that you want to use. Word-finding difficulty occurs when you are unable to recall a word or phrase that you wish to use. For example, if you feel that the word is “on the tip of your tongue” but cannot remember it exactly.
- Dysarthria (pronounced diss-ar-three-ah) is a change in the pace of your speech. You may speak faster or slower than usual which can also lead to slurred or mumbled speech. Other symptoms can include difficulty moving your lips, jaw, or tongue.
The direct relationship between COVID-19 and speech problems is still unknown and continues to be studied. However, COVID-19 may trigger inflammation that affects the brain’s ability to function and produce fluent speech. An increase in stress and anxiety due to COVID-19 can also make a current stutter worse or cause a childhood stutter to return. Brain fog is another symptom of PASC that can contribute to speech problems.
Seeing a Doctor for Speech Problems
See your primary care doctor if you have speech problems that are negatively affecting your quality of life. Your symptoms require professional attention if you start to have trouble eating, struggle to breathe, or feel anxious when having to speak. You may be referred to a Speech-Language Pathologist, a medical specialist who treats communication and swallowing disorders. To determine the cause of your speech problem, a doctor may ask about:
- Your health history
- Previous treatments or any new medications that you have been prescribed or are currently taking
- How speech impairment has affected, your relationships, your career, or your schoolwork
A doctor may also ask you to perform certain tasks to evaluate your breathing and movement abilities. They may also conduct additional tests like:
- Blood tests
- EMG (electromyography)
- MRI scans of your brain and/or neck
Currently, there are no medications to treat stuttering or word-finding difficulty. However, there are several other treatment strategies that can improve speech fluency to increase your ability to participate in school, work, and social activities:
Treatment: Speech Therapy
How does it help?
Practices of speech exercises strengthen your muscles and help you control your breath while speaking. In therapy, you develop better communication strategies specific to your speech issues. It can also help relieve pain and issues with swallowing.
Treatment: Assistive Devices
How does it help?
These are wearable devices designed to enhance fluency or help regulate your speaking pace. These may be electronic accessories that can provide delayed feedback of yourself into your ear. This may also include letter/picture board or a special computer with a keyboard and message display.
Voice and Speech Changes After Being on a Ventilator
Following COVID-19 you may experience hoarseness or weakness in your voice. You may also feel pain in your throat or have trouble swallowing. Infections in your upper-respiratory tract and medical treatment during hospitalization, like being put on a ventilator, can affect the tissues and muscles we use to speak and swallow.
Seeing a Doctor for Voice Changes
See a doctor if your voice changes last more than a week after returning home from the hospital. You may be told to see someone who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, and throat (called an Otolaryngologist). To understand what factors might be causing your symptoms, the doctor may ask about your medical history. The doctor may use an endoscope to view your vocal muscles or conduct additional testing.
Your treatment plan may include techniques like drinking more fluids, resting your voice occasionally, or using a prescribed inhaler. You may also be told to see a Speech-Language Pathologist who will:
- Help you perform speech exercises that can strengthen your muscles
- Provide specific strategies for controlling your voice.