Remember when the University of Utah's football team beat BYU and you - a Ute fan - screamed so loud at your TV set during the game that you couldn't talk the next day?

Well, you were a victim of vocal abuse. And it's not to be laughed at, says Tom Johnson, a nationally recognized expert in the relatively new field of vocal hygiene and prevention.Adults and children who scream too loudly or use their voices professionally have the potential for doing long and short-term damage to their voice, says Johnson, who heads the Department of Communicative Disorders at Utah State University.

Vocal abuse isn't a new problem, especially to people in the performing arts. Professional singers soon learn how much to use their voices and constantly condition their voices if they want peak performance.

Teachers are another high-risk group. They often experience vocal fatigue after speaking for six hours a day for a week.

"Conditioning the muscles that operate the vocal folds (cords) is just as important as conditioning leg muscles before attempting to run a marathon," Johnson said. "Well-developed vocal muscles allow a person to exercise better control over the vocal cords, thus using his or her more voice efficiently. The probability of developing serious vocal disturbance is, therefore, reduced."

Johnson and other voice experts say that 7 percent of all Americans have voice problems that require medical attention or therapy.

The highest percentage of those cases fall into two age categories - children 3-16 years of age and adults over 40 years.

The problems in youth generally are mechanical. Yelling, prolonged loud talking, tension and forcing the voice to be lower (attempting to sound older or more authoritative) can cause swelling, thickening or the formation of nodes on the vocal folds.

The "over 40" group begin to be at risk for medical problems associated with the voice. Cancer in the larynx, especially among cigarette smokers, is a threat. Arthritis and related systemic disorders also can affect the larynx and cause various problems with the voice.