If you’ve ever opened inspected your mouth in the mirror (why? why not!) you’ve probably wondered what the weird skin flap in the back is. That’s the uvula: one of the most mysterious parts of the human body.
Why does it exist? What does the uvula even do? These questions have been vexing scientists and researchers for centuries. Today, we have a great deal of knowledge about the uvula, but we still have much to learn.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you could possibly want to know about the uvula. I’ll also talk about what a swollen uvula means.
What Is the Uvula?
Your uvula is that dangly piece of skin tissue in the back of your throat. Here’s a pic if you don’t know what I’m talking about:
The scientific name of the uvula is the palatine uvula (because of its proximity to the palate), but it’s usually just referred to as the uvula. The word “uvula” comes from the latin word “uvola,” which means a small bunch of grapes. I guess the uvula slightly resembles a little grape.
It’s attached to the rear of the soft palate, and it’s made of mucus membranes, connective tissue, and muscle.
The purpose of the uvula has long puzzled medical scientists, but there have been a number of theories about why we have these strange appendages and what they do.
4 Suspected Uvula Functions
These are some of the theories that have been presented about why we have uvulas. They all make sense logically, but scientists have been unable to either verify or disprove most of them.
Function 1: It Helps Us Drink While Bending Over
One theory that has been disproven is that the uvula is a remnant from our animal ancestors and is designed to help us drink while bending over, like less evolved mammals do.
This theory was disproven when researchers looked at the mouths of eight mammals, including sheep, chimps, and baboons, in a 1992 study.
A small, underdeveloped uvula was only found in two species of baboons, and the researchers determined that uvulas are unique to humans. Therefore, it can’t be a remnant from the past, or a vestigial trait.
Function 2: It Helps Guide Food and Water
The uvula may help guide the flow of food and water down the throat by blocking material from entering the nasal passage and funneling it down into the esophagus. The shape and location of the uvula make this theory credible, but there’s no definitive evidence to prove it.
Function 3: It Induces the Gag Reflex
This theory that the uvula’s role is to induce the gag reflex probably originated because touching the uvula has been shown to cause gagging. Try it with your finger or a toothbrush, if you like.
Because touching the uvula can cause gagging, many people have assumed its purpose is to induce the gag reflex, although scientists have found no definitive proof of this idea.
Nonetheless, gagging is useful so you don’t swallow anything you shouldn’t be swallowing.
Function 4: It Helps With Speech
One of the most accepted current hypotheses about the role of the uvula is that it helps with speech because it excretes a lot of saliva.
It’s hard to talk with a dry mouth, and the uvula provides lubrication to facilitate speaking. Studies have shown the uvula to have a ton of seromucous glands with the ability to produce large volumes of saliva.
Additionally, both the uvula and speech separate humans from other animals, so the theory is that the uvula must play a role in talking. Makes sense, right?
Furthermore, there’s speculation that the uvula prevents overly nasal tones, and it helps create consonant sounds and throaty noises that are common in foreign languages.
Does the Uvula Cause Problems?
Uvula, especially elongated ones, have been connected to various conditions.
It Plays a Role in Sleep Apnea
The uvula may contribute to sleep apnea: a long uvula has been associated with vibrations and obstructions that prevent air from flowing freely through the nose and mouth during sleep.
Sometimes, doctors will treat sleep apnea by removing the uvula in a procedure called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, also known as UPPP. In UPPP, the tonsils and adenoids are also usually removed, and the soft palate and pharynx are reconstructed to lessen obstructions.
UPPP has proven effective in treating sleep apnea, except in patients who are morbidly obese. Unfortunately, though, obesity is one of the leading causes of sleep apnea.
It Contributes to SIDS
This theory hasn’t been disproven, but there isn’t much to support it, other than that SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and the uvula are both unique to humans. Also, some doctors believe that there’s a relationship between sleep apnea and SIDS, and there may be a connection between the uvula and sleep apnea.
It Causes Chronic Cough
Some doctors postulate that the uvula can contribute to chronic cough. There is some evidence that an elongated uvula can irritate the structures of the upper airway and lead to chronic cough. That sounds unpleasant.
Are There Uvula Diseases?
There are diseases and uvula conditions that can be problematic. In medical terms, a swollen uvula is referred to as uvulitis, which can be caused by allergic reactions, infections, or trauma.
The uvula can rapidly swell from Quincke’s disease, which is typically caused by a hypersensitivity reaction from foods, drugs, or inhalants but can also be hereditary. Quincke’s disease causes swelling in the deeper layers of the skin and the fatty tissues beneath the skin. Treatment options include antihistamines and male steroids.
Also, swelling of the uvula often accompanies tonsillitis or epiglottitis. Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils, which can be caused by viral or bacterial infections. The uvulitis will go away when the infection is gone.
Epiglottitis is swelling of the epiglottis, the small cartilage “lid” that covers the windpipe. It’s potentially life-threatening because it blocks the flow of air into the lungs. Thankfully, epiglottitis has become increasingly rare since infants are now vaccinated against the bacterium that most often causes epiglottitis, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
Furthermore, strep throat can cause uvulitis. Strep throat is a bacterial infection and can be treated with antibiotics.
Finally, HPV may produce lesions on the uvula. HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most sexually active people get HPV, but usually there are no symptoms and it goes away on its own. It can be spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. In rare cases, HPV can cause cancer of the uvula.
Unfortunately, there’s no approved HPV test to find HPV in the mouth or throat. To prevent HPV, boys and girls should be vaccinated at 11 or 12 years of age. Those who didn’t get vaccinated as children can get the vaccine up until around 26 years of age. Additionally, you can prevent contracting HPV by practicing safe sex.
Common Uvula Questions and Answers
Here are the answers to some common questions about the uvula:
Does Everyone Have a Uvula?
No! In fact, some people are born without uvulas. That can be associated with a cleft palate.
Also, certain countries in Africa ritually remove uvulas on toddlers or infants of both sexes. Additionally, doctors will remove the uvula in some cases of sleep apnea.
You can live and function normally without a uvula. However, a common complaint of people without uvulas is that they get dry mouth.
Are All Uvulas the Same?
Most uvulas look the same, but some people have heart-shaped, or bifid, uvulas:
A bifid uvula was once thought to be a sign that there was an underlying cleft palate, but research has shown that’s not always the case.
Do People Pierce Their Uvulas?
Oddly enough, the answer is yes. Check it out:
While piercing your uvula seems rather dangerous, apparently it’s not if it’s done by an expert piercer. People have been putting rings in their uvulas for the past 20 years.
Is the Uvula Part of the Tonsils?
The uvula isn’t part of the tonsils; they’re neighbors. The uvula dangles in front of the tonsils. The tonsils are made of lymph tissue and can be seen at the back of the mouth.
What Should I Do if My Uvula Hurts?
If your uvula is hurting or swollen, see a doctor! You could be suffering from an infection or allergic reaction. Perhaps your uvula was injured from an endoscopy or another medical procedure. Also, drug use, particularly smoking marijuana or cocaine, can cause uvulitis.
Bottom Line: What Is the Uvula?
To summarize, here are the major facts we’ve learned about the uvula:
- It’s that dangling piece of skin tissue in the back of the throat.
- Its purpose is still somewhat of a mystery.
- It may help guide food and drink down our throats, induce the gag reflex, and help with speech.
- Humans are the only mammals with uvulas.
- The uvula excretes a lot of saliva.
- An elongated uvula may play a role in sleep apnea and chronic cough.
- The swelling of the uvula, or uvulitis, is most often caused by infections and allergic reactions.
- Not everyone has a uvula, and some people have heart-shaped or bifid uvulas.