The uvula is a small section of tissue which hangs down from the soft palate near the back of the throat. It is oval or tear drop shaped in appearance although it often resembles the letter ‘U’ – hence the name.

It is the last stage in the development of the soft palate. The uvula functions in a very similar way to the epiglottis in that it stops food and/or liquid from entering the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing. This food and/or liquid are sent down into the oesophagus instead.

It does this by means of a muscle contained within the uvula called the ‘musculus uvuae’ which enables it to become rigid and change its shape. This allows it to seal off the opening to the trachea.

Another advantage of this especially for professional singers is that it enables them to produce a ‘vibrato’ sound. This is a ‘wavy’type of sound which travels up and down the musical scale.

It also allows speech and a whole range of sounds to take place, e.g. heavy breathing.

What problems affect the uvula?

The uvula can experience a few problems which include:

  • Infection
  • Velopharyngeal insufficiency (VPI)
  • Nasal regurgitation of food
  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Gag reflex


A throat infection or ‘uvulitis’ is most likely to occur out of all of these throat conditions. It is the medical name for an inflammation of the uvula which is caused by a virus or bacteria. It can also be caused by dehydration. This causes the uvula to swell which when touched, causes the sufferer to gag or choke.

Velopharyngeal insufficiency

Velopharyngeal insufficiency (VPI) is where the uvula fails to close properly against the rear of the throat. This results in extra air travelling down the nose which causes the speech to be ‘nasal’ in tone and quality.

Nasal regurgitation of food

The nasal regurgitation of food is caused by an inability of the uvula to close off the nasopharynx. This allows food to access the nasal cavity. It can be caused by velopharyngeal insufficiency.


Snoring may seem amusing to some people but can cause misery for many others. It is caused by a flabby or too fleshy uvula which then causes heavy vibrations during sleep – known as snoring.

Sleep apnoea

Serious cases of snoring can result in sleep apnoea. This is a condition in which the sufferer experiences an interruption in their breathing whilst they sleep. This has the effect of waking them up which then leads to a broken sleep pattern.

Surgical removal of the uvula can solve this problem. It works by firming and tightening flabby areas of the uvula and, by enlarging the airways. But it is effective in only a percentage of cases.

Gag reflex

The gag reflex is a term used to describe the process in which undigested food is expelled from the body, often when the uvula is touched. This is a common problem for people who undergo uvula piercing. Many people confuse the uvula with either the epiglottis or the tonsils and seek treatment for problems which are unrelated to this part of the throat.

It is important to obtain a correct diagnosis and treatment for any problems connected to the uvula.

© Medic8® | All Rights Reserved