Last reviewed by Dr. Raj MD on January 12th, 2022.
The uvula is often not thought of as a problematic or “important” part of the body.
Most people see the uvula as simply causing their gag reflex. The uvula at times can get infected or irritated just like any other part of the body. In this article, you will learn about the physical structure of the uvula as well as causes, symptoms and possible treatments for when it is irritated.
Always seek medical attention if you experience an inability to breathe or difficulty swallowing.
Anatomy and Physiology : Uvula.
The uvula is found in the back of throat hanging between the tonsils above the back of the tongue. The muscle which controls its movements is called the musculus uvulae. The uvula itself contains connective tissue, glands and only a small amount of muscular fibers. (1,3)
Image 1 : In this image, you can see the connection between the soft palate and the uvula.
Photo Source : upload.wikimedia.org
- In other languages such as French and german one very important function is the aid in speech. The muscle attached to the uvula helps in making guttural sounds.
- Assists in swallowing.
- Contains the gag reflex.
- Saliva production. (2,3)
Other symptoms that may accompany a swollen uvula:
- Feeling that something is stuck in the back of the throat.
- Difficulty breathing
- Overproduction of saliva
These symptoms may occur up to 45min to 24 hours after the original cause. This important when making the diagnosis. (1,5)
Tips for diagnosing uvular edema:
- Remember it could be a delayed response from food or medication allergies.
- Sometimes it may get worse before it starts to get better.
- Treat aggressively if there is difficulty breathing or swallowing even if the original cause is still unknown.
- Examine the patient’s throat well before treating in order to rule out blockage of foreign objects or lacerations due to trauma. (5)
Swollen Uvula Causes
- Swollen uvula after tonsillectomy- anything affecting the tonsils may affect the uvula as well.
- Uvulitis – infection in the uvula – viral or bacterial (strep throat, which is due to Streptococcus pyogenes, a type of group A Streptococcus.)
- Dry mouth- the uvula and the back of the throat must remain moist or will be to get irritated.
- Acid reflux- the skin over the uvula is not made to resist stomach acid. Regurgitation may irritate the skin and cause inflammation.
- Physical injury to the back of the throat-Any type of trauma to the throat can cause swelling to the uvula.
- Breathing through the mouth due to the common cold– this will cause dry mouth and dehydration to the back of the throat.
- Allergies– This can include food allergies as well as seasonal allergies.
- Genetic malformation- cleft pallet or soft pallet malformations.
Mechanical or thermal trauma
- Chemical reactions- if any chemical was ingested that could cause damage to the tissue of the uvula. (1)
- Peritonsillar abscess- This diagnosis is an abscess in the peritonsillar area but the inflammation and soreness could invade the uvular area. (1,4)
Figure 2 : This image depicts a normal uvula and how it should appear in the back of the throat.
Photo Source : upload.wikimedia.org
Picture 3 : The uvula is swollen and red due to irritation from some cause.
Picture Source : upload.wikimedia.org
Differential diagnosis to find causes of Swollen Uvula
There are various steps and items to process when swollen uvula is the presiding symptom:
- First, remember your ABC and focus on the airway, breathing, and circulation of the patient.
- When a patient is stable you can begin to be sure the patient does or does not have a fever. This will help you rule in or out infection.
- If no infection is noted then it is time to rule out food allergies by asking the patient what they ate within the last 24 hours.
- In this case, antihistamines and possibly steroids can be prescribed depending on the severity. (6,10)
When should I see a doctor?
- Signs of dehydration
- Loss of voice
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Any type of drainage noted coming from the uvula or back of throat
- Pain that cannot be managed by the treatments noted.
Picture 4 : This picture is an excellent example of what a swollen uvula would look like.
Image Source : www.nejm.org
Treatments and Home remedies
- Doctors may prescribe steroids such as dexamethasone (1,6)
- antibiotics depending on the diagnosis found.
- If the diagnosis is allergy related antihistamines will be given
- Uvular decompression is a process of putting small cuts in the uvula to let it drain.
- Gargles: salt water, iodine, warm water
- Keep well hydrated
- Warm drinks with honey
- Cough drops or hard candies
- Throat sprays that numb the throat
- Ice chips
- Over the counter pain relief medications such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen. (1,2,10)
Can a Swollen Uvula be from snoring?
Yes, the sound made by snoring is due to the soft tissues of the tongue uvula and back of the throat vibrating against each other. As you can image this constant friction to the uvula can cause irritation and swelling. (1,3)
Image 5 : In this image, you can see the positioning of the uvula and the soft pallet in different class distinctions of people with snoring issues.
Picture Source : www.intechopen.com
What causes the Uvula to Swell?
Any sort of irritation can cause uvular swelling. The irritation may be physical or from infection. See causes as written above. (1,3,5)
What is Uvulitis caused from?
Uvulitis is usually caused by bacterial infection. It could also be caused by excessive smoking, dehydration, snoring, and allergic reactions. (3)
What virus causes Epiglottitis?
Epiglottitis is also caused by bacterial infection and could be caused by many of the same causes stated above for swollen uvula.
Can a Swollen Uvula be from smoking?
Yes as stated before any irritation can cause uvular swelling, this includes the toxic smoke which passes it during smoking.
- Clinical Anesthesia: Near Misses and Lessons Learned By John G. Brock-Utne, MD, Ph.D., FFA(SA) https://books.google.com.mx/books?id=xQ5dXUBG6B0C&pg=PA55&dq=uvular+edema&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=uvular%20edema&f=false
- Near Misses in Pediatric Anesthesia By John G. Brock-Utne https://books.google.com.mx/books?id=NQ1GAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA108&dq=uvular+edema&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=uvular%20edema&f=false
- Nailing the Written Emergency Medicine Board Examination edited by Bobby Desai, Brandon R. Allen https://books.google.com.mx/books?id=LbauDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA496&dq=uvular+edema&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=uvular%20edema&f=false