By Dr. Mercola
Your uvula is the dangly bit of flesh that hangs at the back of your throat, a body part that has prompted many to wonder, “Why is that even there?” Fittingly, the word uvula comes from the Latin word “uvola,” which means “small bunch of grapes.”1
In ancient times, the uvula was believed to play a role in speech and immunology. It was also somewhat feared and regarded as a potentially hazardous organ that could cause apnea and death.2,3
Writing in the journal Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, researchers suggested in the 1990s that the most important function of the uvula may be due to the muscularis uvula, which is the muscle that moves the uvula up and down.
“Its function could be related to drinking while bending over,” they stated, citing a previous assumption that the uvula may be leftover from mammals that drink while bending their neck downward.4
However, when they studied the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth) of eight different mammals, “a small underdeveloped uvula” was found in only two baboons. In other words, it seems most other mammals do not have uvulas, which pretty much debunked the drinking while bending over theory.
What Happens If Your Uvula Is Removed?
In some areas, including in several sub-Saharan African countries, traditional uvulectomy, or removing all or part of the uvula, may be performed for cultural reasons.
Other ethnic groups may perform uvelectomy in order to treat everything from vomiting and anorexia to refusal to breastfeed in infants, growth retardation and fever.5 There are clear risks to the surgery itself, but whether the lack of a uvula poses additional problems is more of a mystery.
Many people do live healthy lives without a uvula, but that isn’t to say it’s not important.
Clues to the purpose of your uvula may be gleaned from uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), which is surgery that may be used to treat obstructive sleep apnea or severe cases of snoring (even though in the long term it may only reduce snoring in 46 percent to 73 percent of patients and results for treating sleep apnea are mixed).6
The surgery typically involves removal of the uvula along with other tissues, such as part of the roof of the mouth, excess throat tissue, tonsils and adenoids and the pharynx.
The purpose is to widen the airway, allowing air to move through more easily and potentially reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea and snoring.
Some people who have the surgery have unpleasant complications, including changes in speech, drainage of secretions into their nose and a nasal quality to their voice,7 which may be related, in part, to their lack of a uvula.
Five Possible Reasons You Have a Uvula
Your uvula may have multiple purposes, some of which may have yet to be discovered. However, research to date has uncovered several plausible reasons why humans have uvulas.
1. An Accessory Organ of Speech
It’s been suggested that your uvula prevents excessively nasal speech and also is used to produce uvular sounds found in French, Arabic and some West African languages.
It may also be used to produce palatal trill, which is used in some parts of the U.K.8 According to researchers from Hasharon Hospital in Israel:9
“Both uvula and speech serve to differentiate human beings from animals. Our conclusion is that the uvula is possibly an accessory organ of speech … and may be another marker of human evolution that differentiates man from other mammals.”
However, adding to the complexities, some research suggests removal of the uvula does not have a negative effect on speech.10
2. To Keep Your Throat Lubricated
It’s known that your uvula has the ability to produce and secrete large quantities of thin saliva. When the uvula is surgically removed, some people even experience dryness in their throat as a result.11
When you speak and swallow, your uvula swings back and forth, and it’s been suggested that the purpose of your uvula is to essentially “baste” your throat, helping to “keep it moist and well lubricated.”12 This lubrication may assist with the complex sounds of human speech.
3. Helping to Keep Food From Going Up Your Nose and a Drain for Mucus
Another theory suggests your uvula exists to block the path of food and liquid from going up your nose. It does this by sealing off the passageway between your throat and your nose (the nasopharynx), keeping food and liquid in the right place.
It’s this seal that may also help prevent an overly nasal-sounding voice, as it helps direct air and vocal vibrations out of your mouth instead of your nose.13 (Although your soft palate can typically create this seal on its own). According to Today I Found Out:14
“ … [I]n most cases the uvula is not necessary to put an end to a nasally sounding voice.
In rare cases, some individuals do have a problem with this, a condition called velopharyngeal insufficiency, which, beyond potential issues like nasal regurgitation (bits of food and the like going up your nose when swallowing), results in the individual having difficulty saying consonants like ‘b’.”
It’s also been suggested that your uvula may help to drain and direct the flow of mucus secreted from your nasal cavities, helping it to flow toward the base of your tongue and down your throat.15
4. To Trigger Your Gag Reflex
If something touches your uvula, it will trigger your gag reflex, which causes a contraction at the back of your throat that thrusts objects forward and helps prevent choking. It could be that your uvula exists for this purpose, to help you expel any objects that are too large to swallow.16
Your uvula is one of only five parts of your body capable of triggering your gag reflex when touched. (The others are the roof of your mouth, the back of your tongue, the back of your throat and your tonsils.17)
5. Immunological Importance
When researchers analyzed the frequency and distribution of immune cells in uvula tissue samples, they found the uvula may be a site for induction of mucosal tolerance to inhaled and ingested antigens.18
Mucosal tolerance occurs only on mucosal surfaces and results in the suppression of your immune responses to inhaled or ingested antigens. The purpose is to prevent your body from launching an unnecessary immunological attack against harmless substances like pollen or foods.19
Interestingly, your uvula also has its own protection against potential microbial pathogens, as researchers noted it contains a “subepithelial barrier of macrophages and gammadelta T cells.”20
A Long Uvula May Trigger a Chronic Cough
If you suffer from a chronic cough with no explanation, it’s worth considering whether your uvula could be to blame. It’s been found that some people have an elongated uvula that is so long it irritates the upper airway and induces a cough reflex.21
In one analysis of 30 people, most of them middle-aged women, with chronic cough of unknown origin symptoms included globus sensation (or the feeling of having a lump in your throat) and a gag reflex when lying down. In most of the women, removal of the uvula resolved their chronic cough.
For the most part, however, you and your uvula probably coexist without any problems and, likely, some benefits to your speech, throat lubrication, ability to avoid choking and possibly your immune function. Occasionally, a case of a swollen uvula is reported, which may occur due to an allergic reaction, infection, trauma or due to a genetic condition called hereditary angioedema, which causes welling of the uvula, throat, face, hands and feet.22
For the most part this is a mild condition that will clear up on its own, but in rare cases your uvula could swell enough to make swallowing or even breathing difficult. In these latter cases, seek medical help immediately. For minor irritation of your uvula, try sucking on ice chips or gargling with warm salt water.
You Might Want to Rethink Having Your Uvula Pierced
Although it’s not common, some people choose to have their uvula pierced. This process comes with numerous complexities and risks, however, starting with the piercing process itself. Because handling your uvula will trigger your gag reflex, it is very difficult to safely pierce this sensitive area.
It’s possible for your uvula to be crushed in the process and swelling and infection may occur. If the piercing goes well, the presence of a ring can change the way your uvula moves and pull it down, reducing the diameter of your airway, especially during sleep.23
This may increase your risk of snoring or other breathing disorders. Further, if the piercing is placed too far down, the ring may touch the back of your tongue, causing irritation. If the piece of jewelry comes undone, it could also get caught in your throat. Since the long-term consequences of piercing (or removing) your uvula are rather unclear at this time, it’s best to leave well enough (and your uvula) alone.