The uvula is a small flap of tissue that hangs in the back of the throat, at the edge of the soft palate. It is comprised of connective tissue and muscle and covered in the same mucus membrane that covers the cheeks and the roof of the mouth. A swollen uvula, uvulitis, can be dangerous because it sits right over the airway.
To understand how serious a swollen uvula can be, it helps to understand the functions of the uvula. This small piece of tissue is highly sophisticated. It can quickly excrete a large amount of saliva, and researchers believe it is integral to speech. Some even think the uvula is a mark of evolution, as it is something that only humans and a few apes have.
A swollen uvula or uvulitis can be dangerous because, depending on how much swelling there is, it can obstruct the airway or cause difficulty swallowing. When the uvula swells, other parts of the mouth, including the throat, tonsils, and palate, may also be affected by whatever is causing the problem.
One cause of a swollen uvula is an allergic reaction. This type of uvulitis is called Quincke’s edema. People with a personal or family history of hypersensitivity reactions, like eczema, urticaria, asthma, or hayfever, are more likely to develop Quincke's edema. It comes on fast and should be treated with medications like steroids and antihistamines quickly.
The most common cause of a swollen uvula is a streptococcus infection, which usually causes other areas of the mouth to swell, too. Other causes include inhaling or swallowing chemicals, damage from severe and persistent acid reflux, and smoking. Injury to the back of the throat from intubation, an endoscopy, or surgery such as a tonsillectomy can also cause uvulitis.
Symptoms may include fever or sore throat from an underlying strep infection, choking, gagging, coughing, excessive saliva, and decreased appetite. People with a swollen uvula may also feel like they have something stuck in their throat. To reach a uvulitis diagnosis, doctors typically perform throat swabs, blood tests, and allergy tests to identify the cause and initiate proper treatment.
A swollen uvula may get better on its own, without medication. Depending on the cause, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics, steroids, and antihistamines. Throat lozenges and over-the-counter pain killers can help relieve symptoms. If the swelling does not go away after treatment, surgery may be needed to remove part of the uvula.
A swollen uvula usually responds to treatment, and the prognosis is generally good, though it depends on the cause. If symptoms return after treatment, contact a medical provider. Severe swelling that goes untreated can cause a life-threatening situation if it blocks the airway and restricts breathing. If this happens and you're having trouble breathing, call 911 right away.
In most cases, nothing can prevent a swollen uvula, except maintaining good hygiene and trying not to get an infection. People with a personal or familial history of hypersensitivity reactions or allergies should avoid the allergen in the future and discuss a treatment and a prevention plan with their medical provider.
There are a few things someone with a swollen uvula can try at home to control symptoms, including gargling with warm salt water, getting lots of rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and avoiding smoke and secondhand smoke. If the condition worsens, however, contact a medical professional, and call an ambulance or head to the ER right away if breathing difficulties develop.
Experts once thought that isolated uvulitis was rare, but one study suggests that it occurs in isolation more often than previously thought. A swollen uvula often develops in conjunction with epiglottitis — inflammation of the flap at the base of the tongue — but isolated cases may be dismissed as a simple sore throat. That said, doctors should investigate epiglottitis in every case of uvulitis.
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