That little dangly bit of flesh that hangs in the back of your throat is called the uvula. But, why is it even there? The name comes from the Latin word uvola and means “small bunch of grapes”. It was believed to have played a role in speech and immunology, back in ancient times, as well as feared and regarded as a potentially hazardous organ that could cause apnea and death.
Researchers have written in the journal Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, suggesting that in the 1990’s, the important function of the uvula may be due to the muscularis uvula that is the muscle, which moves the uvula up and down. Possibly this is related to drinking while bending over. The assumption is that the uvula may be leftover from mammals that drink while bending their necks downward. But when they studied the soft palate at the back of the roof of the mouth of 8 different mammals, a small underdeveloped uvula was found in only two baboons, so most other mammals do not have uvulas and therefore debunks the drinking while bending over theory.
Traditional removal of the uvula (uvulectomy) in several sub-Saharan African countries may be removed for cultural reasons. Ethnic groups may perform uvulectomy in order to treat ailments from vomiting and anorexia to refusal to breastfeed in infants, growth retardation and fever.
Many people do live healthy lives without a uvula. A surgery called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty may be used to treat obstructive sleep apnea or severe snoring. In this surgery they remove the uvula along with other tissues, such as part of the roof of the mouth, excess throat tissue, tonsils, adenoids and the pharynx. There are some who have the surgery and experience unpleasant complications such as changes in speech, drainage of secretions into their nose and a nasal quality to their voice.
Some reasons to have the uvula removed are:
An accessory organ of speech
To keep your throat lubricated
To help keep food from going up your nose and a drain for mucus
To trigger your gag reflex
If you have a long uvula, it may trigger a chronic cough. Some people do have an elongated uvula that is so long that it irritates the upper airway and induces a cough reflex. After analyzing 30 people, most middle-aged women, with chronic cough of unknown origin, removal of the uvula resolved their chronic cough. The uvula most likely adds some benefits to your speech, throat lubrication and the ability to avoid choking as well as possibly your immune function. For minor irritation of the uvula, try sucking on ice chips or gargling with warm salt water. If your uvula swells enough to make swallowing or breathing difficult, seek medical attention right away. Irritation of the uvula will usually clear up on its own, if it’s a mild condition.
Some people might even be adventurous enough to pierce their uvula. Well, try rethinking that one. This procedure comes with numerous complexities and risks. As a start, handling your uvula will trigger your gag reflex and it is very difficult to safely pierce this sensitive area. The uvula could even be crushed in the process and cause swelling and infection. If all goes well, the presence of a ring can change the way your uvula moves and pull it down, reducing the diameter of your airway. This could make sleeping difficult. Your risk of snoring and other breathing disorders could be increased. The ring could even touch the back of your tongue, causing irritation, and if the jewelry comes undone, it could get caught in your throat. Just leave that uvula alone. You’ll thank yourself later on down the road! Why take a chance with your health?
-Dr Fredda Branyon