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The Role of the Uvula

It resembles a boxing speed bag and some refer to it as your "dangly thing." These descriptions would be inaccurate. So we're going to set the record straight on this somewhat odd-looking part of your mouth. The actual term for it is your uvula. It affects your eating and speaking and plays a significant role in your sleeping and throat health. Get the entire lowdown on your uvula below and how you can keep it fit as a fiddle.

Oral Anatomy

Before learning what your uvula does, it's good to understand where the uvula is located and what surrounds it. It falls within your mouth's palate. Your hard palate is at the front of your mouth, consisting of a more bony structure, while the fleshier part in the back of the oral cavity is the soft palate. There you'll find your uvula or palatine uvula. It's a fleshy teardrop-shaped piece of tissue that hangs at the end of your soft palate near your throat or pharynx.

What Does the Uvula Do?

You've learned where the uvula is situated. Now to its function. Years ago, before modern science, many thought the uvula didn't serve a purpose. That has since been debunked. So what does the uvula do? Plenty.

  • It stops food and liquid from entering your nasal cavity as it and the soft palate move upward when you swallow
  • It helps in your ability to speak
  • It stops you from choking as it triggers your gag reflex should a large piece of food or foreign object get to the back of your throat

Uvulitis

Many parts of your body and mouth can become inflamed, and your uvula is no exception. Usually, the inflammation is due to an infection. Other possible causes could be a throat injury, allergic reaction, ingesting certain chemicals, or smoking.

Other symptoms on top of inflammation include:

  • Fever
  • Feeling like something is in your throat
  • Choking or gagging
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Excessive saliva
  • Decreased appetite

Your doctor may treat your uvulitis with antibiotics for an infection, steroids for swelling, or antihistamines for allergies. At home, you should also:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Gargle with saltwater
  • Use an over-the-counter throat spray or lozenges
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever
  • Eliminate all exposure to smoke

If symptoms don't cease, it could be strep throat. While it's most common in children, adults can still contract strep as well. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, swollen glands, and red tonsils. See your doctor if pain or discomfort persists for more than a few days.

Sleep Apnea

While your uvula assists you with many essential functions, it can also be an accomplice in snoring. Your soft palate muscles, tongue, and throat relax when you transition to deep sleep. When your throat muscles relax too much, they can block your airway, creating an audible vibration, or snoring. But snoring could be a sign of a more significant issue — obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Sleep apnea is a serious disorder where your breathing randomly stops and starts while sleeping. Symptoms include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Gasping for breath when you sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking
  • More dry and sore mouth
  • Irritability
  • Nighttime sweating

You're at a higher risk if you're overweight, diabetic, or experience elevated blood pressure. If you feel you're experiencing OSA, see your doctor right away, as it could lead to heart disease if not treated.

If you've got a perfectly healthy uvula, you may never notice it hanging down in the back of your soft palate. However, if it becomes inflamed or you're experiencing signs of sleep apnea, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor.

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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