The epiglottis is a flap of soft cartilage, covered by a mucous membrane. It is attached to the back of the tongue and acts as a valve during swallowing to prevent food and liquid from entering the lungs. This valve closes when we swallow food, liquid, even saliva, without us having to think about doing so. In other words, it is an unconscious action.

The epiglottis lies in a vertical position during breathing (part of it is attached to the pharynx) but drops into a horizontal position during swallowing to prevent food and liquid from accessing the trachea.

In other words, the epiglottis lies in the pharynx during breathing but becomes part of the larynx during swallowing.

It folds itself across the trachea to prevent food and/or liquid from entering it which is directed into the oesophagus instead. This temporarily shuts off air into the trachea but as soon as food and/or drink have been swallowed, it reopens the trachea. This allows breathing to take place as normal.

This action is designed to prevent food and drink from entering the lungs.

However, this does happen occasionally. We have all experienced that moment when food or liquid has ‘gone down the wrong lane’as it is more commonly known. This sensation results in that red faced, choking feeling which, whilst unpleasant, only lasts for a short period of time.

A good way of thinking about the epiglottis is to imagine it as a lid: this ‘lid’closes the trachea (or windpipe) whenever food or drink are swallowed but opens afterwards to enable breathing.

Can anything go wrong with the epiglottis?

Yes it can. There is a throat infection called epiglottitis in which the epiglottis becomes inflamed, thereby blocking the trachea and causing breathing problems. However this condition is rare.

Find out more about epiglottitis in our throat infections section.

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