If you stand in front of the mirror and open your mouth wide enough to look at your throat, you will see a small piece of tissue that looks a bit like a pendulum hanging right at the back. It is worth taking a look, especially if you haven’t noticed it before, as this little piece of tissue is called a uvula, a Latin word that translates to little grape. The uvula is attached to the soft palate right at the back of your mouth and is made from muscle and flexible connective tissues, ensuring it remains hanging right at the back, just above your tongue. The size and shape of a uvula can vary tremendously, and it comes in many different colours. Generally, a uvula is pink but can also appear red, brown or even purple. What you might not know is that only humans have a uvula. Other animals might have similar structures, but nothing is quite the same.
What Is the Purpose of a Uvula?
There has been a lot of debate about the exact purpose of a uvula, and experts rarely agree upon it. However, it is thought that the uvula helps block the passageway to your nasal cavity whenever you swallow, preventing food from going up your nose! As you swallow, the uvula moves backwards. It is also thought that the uvula helps speech. If you snore or live with someone who snores, then part of this noise is caused by the uvula vibrating. If you have an overactive gag response, you might be able to blame it on your uvula. Touching the uvula can induce vomiting or make you gag, and it could be a safety feature preventing food from going down the wrong way to prevent you from choking.
However, one of the main purposes of a uvula seems to be to produce saliva, helping to moisten your mouth and throat. An adequate flow of saliva is extremely important for oral health as it helps keep your mouth clean, moist and comfortable. As you chew food, it is moistened by saliva so you can form the food into a bolus and swallow it more easily. Saliva contains digestive enzymes, so the process of digestion actually begins in your mouth and ensures your body can extract maximum nutrition from your food more effectively.
Can a Uvula Develop Problems?
Generally, your uvula will just hang at the back of your throat without any problem, but it can sometimes become inflamed or swollen, perhaps because of seasonal allergies. In this case, taking antihistamines can help, or you might find it useful to drink more water or use a humidifier. Other times a uvula becomes swollen because of a bacterial infection, and you might need antibiotics.
Very rarely, a uvula may need to be removed, perhaps if the person has severe sleep apnoea. You can function perfectly well without a uvula, although it may initially take a little time to get used to swallowing or speaking.