The uvula is a small appendage in the body that most people rarely think about. It is located in the back of the mouth above the throat. The uvula's main function is to help us speak and swallow food without chocking. This small piece of tissue that hangs at the entrance to the throat can become inflamed and infected.
When the uvula becomes inflamed the medical term for this condition is uvulitis. The mucus membranes of the uvula can swell due to an allergy or from a viral or bacterial infection. The uvula can swell to such a degree that it touches the throat or tongue, causing a gagging or choking reflex. It can expand up to five times its size, making it difficult to speak, eat and even breathe. It can also cause snoring. Although frightening, this is not typically fatal but it can be very uncomfortable.
How the Uvula Gets Infected
Because the uvula is located where the mouth meets the rest of the body, it is prone to irritation and infection. It can be irritated by allergens that pass through the mouth, very hot or cold foods and fluids, cigarette smoke, canker sores, dehydration and tubes that are inserted for certain surgeries. The irritated uvula is then vulnerable to ever-present bacteria and viruses and can become infected.
Uvulitis is not always caused by an infection. If an allergen caused the uvula to swell, the best remedy is an antihistamine like Benedryl. If the uvula is infected, the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to fight the specific infection. The irritation and pain can be soothed by gargling with warm salt water and a pain reliever like aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol). It is important to drink plenty of fluids, avoid smoking and excess alcohol, sleep with the head of the bed elevated and, if an infection is present, get plenty of rest .
When to See a Specialist
If uvulitis continues to occur, the doctor may suspect allergies or acid reflux (where stomach acids back up into the throat) are causing the problem. Some people with recurring uvulitis and severe allergies are advised to carry an auto injector of adrenaline (an EpiPen). In these instances, it would be advisable to see a specialist like an allergist or otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist).
When Its Not Ulvutis But Epiglottitis
Uvulitis should not be confused with epiglottitis, which is life-threatening. The epiglottis is at the back of the tongue and is cartilage that helps to close off the windpipe when swallowing. When this becomes inflamed, the airways can be blocked. Epiglottits usually occurs in children between the ages of 2 and 6. When unsure as to whether the problem is uvulitis or epiglotttits, parents should not take any chances and get the child emergency medical treatment.