When you open your mouth wide, one of the first things you probably notice is your uvula. It is the small, teardrop-shaped flesh that hangs at the opening of your throat, or pharynx, flanked by your tonsils.
The uvula has several important functions when it comes to food consumption, saliva production, and speech. Like most parts of the body, the uvula can be susceptible to inflammation and illness—commonly known as uvulitis. If you notice an oversized or swollen uvula, it may be a sign that something is not right.
What Is A Uvula?
The uvula is an extension of the soft palate that hangs from the roof of your mouth. It is made up of mucous membranes, connective and muscle tissue, as well as canals that excrete saliva. It is very flexible, which ensures that it can fulfill a variety of functions.
One of the uvula’s primary functions is to work as part of the soft palate to close the nasal cavity and help push food toward your throat as you swallow. The uvula also aids in your speaking ability and prevents choking by triggering the gag reflex.
Why Is My Uvula Swollen?
There are many conditions that can lead to a swollen uvula, ranging from a temporary infection to genetics. In most cases, it is a symptom associated with temporary conditions such as a virus or allergic reaction. Swelling, redness, and soreness of the uvula is referred to as uvulitis. If your uvula is swollen for more than a week, you should speak to a doctor.
What is uvulitis?
Uvulitis is an inflammation of the uvula, typically caused by a response to injury, allergic reaction, infection, or illness. Symptoms of inflammation may include redness, irritation, itching, or burning. Swelling is one of the most common symptoms of uvulitis—it can cause the mucous membrane around the uvula to expand to 3–5 times its normal size. While uvulitis can affect people of all ages, it is typically more common in children than adults.
The most common bacterial infection to cause uvulitis is strep throat, which is caused by an infection of Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. Infections that cause the nasal passages to block up and force you to breathe through your mouth make it easier to develop uvulitis.
Other common infections that can cause uvulitis include:
While a sore throat, and by extension a swollen uvula, can be a symptom of coronavirus, Yale Medicine laryngologist, Dr. Michael Lerner, estimates that these symptoms only occur in about 10% of coronavirus cases.
There are certain environmental and lifestyle factors that can inhibit proper uvula function and contribute to uvulitis, including:
- Dehydration: A lack of fluids can lead to uvulitis. Although less common, you could experience a swollen uvula after drinking alcohol.
- Snoring: Snoring can be the result, and in some rare cases, the cause of a swollen uvula. It can often be the reason why you wake up with a swollen uvula and is linked to sleep apnea.
- Allergens: An allergic reaction to food or other irritants can cause swelling in different parts of the body, including the uvula.
- Medication: Certain medications may have side effects that can cause your uvula to swell.
- Chemicals or other substances: Inhaling certain substances, like tobacco, that are toxic to your body could lead to many reactions, including a swollen uvula.
Your uvula can be damaged during procedures that are done in close proximity to the area, such as a tonsillectomy or intubation. Frequent vomiting or acid reflux can also cause your throat and uvula to become irritated.
While uncommon, a swollen uvula and uvulitis can be caused by a condition called hereditary angioedema. Unlike uvulitis, an elongated uvula is a genetic condition that causes similar symptoms such as trouble breathing and sleep apnea. An elongated uvula can only be treated through surgery.
Symptoms of Uvulitis
When you have uvulitis, your uvula will feel sore and appear red and inflamed. Your uvula may even touch your tongue or throat, making it feel as if something is stuck in the back of your throat. In some cases, the sound of your voice may also be affected.
Other symptoms of uvulitis may include:
- Itchy, burning, or sore throat
- Swollen tonsils
- Trouble swallowing
- Excessive saliva
- White spots on the uvula
- Labored breathing
If you have a swollen uvula along with a fever or pain, you should speak with a doctor. This could be an indication of an underlying medical issue that needs to be treated.
Diagnosing A Swollen Uvula
A swollen uvula will appear larger and redder than a normal uvula—something you can examine by opening your mouth and looking into a mirror. In some cases, the cause can be obvious, like an allergic reaction.
If you feel like your breathing or swallowing is blocked due to a swollen uvula, go to the ER immediately or call 911.
Whether you are treating a swollen uvula with home remedies or you plan to see a doctor, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you consumed tobacco in any form recently?
- Have you taken any new over-the-counter or prescription medications?
- Have you tried any new foods?
- Have you been exposed to harmful substances?
- Are you experiencing any other symptoms?
Sometimes, answering these questions can help you determine the cause without seeking additional medical assistance. If you believe your swollen uvula is the result of an allergic reaction to food or medication, you should see a doctor right away.
Swollen Uvula Treatment
If you have a swollen uvula or sore throat, it is your body’s way of telling you that something is not right. While it may require a visit to the doctor, there are several home remedies you can try to bring you relief:
- Cold therapy: Ease soreness and swelling by sucking on ice chips or a frozen popsicle.
- Proper hydration: Make sure you are getting enough fluids. If your throat hurts when you drink, try drinking small amounts throughout the day.
- Soothing drinks: Drink hot tea and honey, or just honey and hot water.
- Gargling: Gargle a glass filled with warm salt water.
- Rest: Get a full night’s sleep and nap during the day if you can.
Home remedies combined with over-the-counter pain relief medications can usually help resolve symptoms in a couple of days. If you do not see an improvement, or if you are experiencing additional symptoms, you should speak with a doctor. Once a doctor has determined the cause, they may prescribe one of the following:
- Steroids to reduce swelling of the uvula
- Antihistamines to treat an allergic reaction
Swollen Uvula Prevention
It is difficult to avoid the occasional swollen uvula, especially when the symptom is related to an illness like the common cold, but there are a few preventative measures you can take when it comes to your lifestyle and existing conditions.
- Reduce alcohol intake
- Quit smoking
- Take allergy medication
- Reduce acid reflux by taking antacids
In most other cases, a swollen uvula or uvulitis is not fully preventable, but will likely clear up on its own.
Risk Factors and Complications
Anyone can get uvulitis, although adults get it less often than children do. You are at increased risk if you:
- Have allergies
- Use tobacco products
- Are exposed to irritants in the environment
- Suffer from a weakened immune system due to illness
These risk factors can most likely lead to further complications beyond a swollen uvula. If swelling of the uvula is severe and goes untreated, it may cause choking and restrict your breathing.
Removal of the uvula
If you have a large uvula that interferes with sleeping or breathing, your doctor may recommend a uvulectomy. This procedure removes all or part of the uvula and is usually done to treat snoring or symptoms of sleep apnea. It only takes a few minutes, and recovery is fairly quick.
When to See a Doctor
While a swollen uvula generally resolves with time and with home remedies, professional medical treatment may be required. A doctor will help determine the cause of your swollen uvula to recommend a proper course of treatment. You should speak with a doctor if you are experiencing the following:
- Swelling not improving or getting worse after one week
- Swelling is triggered by an allergic reaction
- Symptoms of dehydration, including dark urine, dry mouth, cracked lips, dizziness, or sunken eyes
When you visit the doctor, you should let them know if you have been recently exposed to anything new or out of the ordinary. After some questions, they will most likely swab your throat and possibly your nostrils to test for various infections such as influenza or coronaviruses. They may also need to test your blood to help identify or rule out other infectious agents.
If results from those tests are inconclusive, you could be referred to an allergist. Blood and skin tests can help identify foods or other substances that cause the reaction.
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