The Role of the Uvula

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The mouth is one body part that receives constant attention. Breathing, eating and speaking would be impossible without every part working together. One of those mouth parts, the uvula, might not get as much attention as your teeth or tongue, but it's just as important.

Oral Anatomy

The roof of your mouth is lined with a moist, membrane-covered tissue called the palate, according to Nemours. The palate contains two parts. The hard palate in the front divides the mouth from the nasal cavity, while the soft palate at the rear helps block off the throat during eating and drinking. The uvula (properly called the palatine uvula) is found in the soft palate. It is flanked on both sides by the tonsils. Both structures are located at the opening of the throat, also known as the pharynx.

What Does the Uvula Do?

This structure does serve a purpose, despite past scientific theories suggesting that it was merely vestigial. According to Oregon State University, the act of swallowing moves it and the soft palate upward, preventing foods and liquids from entering the nasal cavity.

This tiny bundle of mucous membranes, connective tissue and muscle aids in a person's speaking ability, according to Penn State University. It also prevents choking by triggering the gag reflex if an unusually large object is passed to the back of the throat.

Uvulitis

Like many other body parts, this part of the soft palate isn't exempt from inflammation and illness. Uvulitis is usually caused by an infection, but sometimes results from an allergy or injury, according to Alberta Health Services. Symptoms include redness and swelling, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing or a feeling that something is stuck in the back of the throat.

While you might need to see your doctor for a case of uvulitis, there are some home remedies you can try:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Gargle with warm salt water.
  • Use an over-the-counter throat spray.
  • Consult your doctor about taking an over-the-counter pain reliever.
  • Don't smoke, and limit your exposure to smoke.

If your symptoms don't go away or you notice red or white streaks in the back of your mouth, it could be a case of a bacterial infection called strep throat. While strep is mostly associated with children, adults can get it, too. Typical strep throat symptoms include a sore throat, fever, swollen glands and red tonsils, reports the Cleveland Clinic. If your case of uvulitis is painful or lasts more than a few days, don't hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor.

Sleep Apnea

The vibration of the soft palate and surrounding tissues is what causes the sound of snoring, according to Penn State University. The Mayo Clinic notes that a thick, soft palate can narrow a person's airway as they sleep, while an elongated uvula can obstruct airflow and increase tissue vibration.

Snoring might be more of a problem than you think. It could be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that causes breathing to repeatedly start and stop during sleep, and it can have potentially dire consequences. One of the main mechanisms of obstructive sleep apnea has to do with mouth anatomy: The soft palate muscles relax, and your airway narrows or even closes when you sleep.

The Mayo Clinic notes that some of the more common symptoms of OSA include loud snoring, gasping for breath when you sleep, a dry mouth in the morning, difficulty staying awake during the daytime, insomnia and irritability. People are more at risk if they are overweight or have certain conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

If not diagnosed and properly treated, sleep apnea may contribute to serious medical complications like high blood pressure and heart disease. If you think you suffer from sleep apnea, consult a medical professional.

Most of the time, you won't even known your uvula is there. If your uvulitis or throat problems become persistent, seek help from a doctor and schedule an appointment for a consultation.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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