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The uvula, also known as the palatine (of the palate) uvula, is a dumbbell-like projection that hangs from the top of the back of the mouth. When you eat or drink, the uvula pushes back so you don't suck food or fluid up your nose. The uvula also produces thin, watery saliva that keeps your throat moist and lubricated. Some of the distinctive consonant sounds in Arabic, French, and Hebrew are made by uvulation, a trill or the vibrating uvula. Speakers of other languages use the uvula to stop the flow of air from the nose to make a "b" sound out of an "m" sound.

Stimulating the uvula triggers a gag reflex. It's a common way to induce vomiting. The musculus uvulae, a muscle entirely within the uvula, can lengthen or shorten it to protect the nasal passages or in speech.

Sometimes the mucous membrane surrounding the uvula can become inflamed and swell. The uvula may expand to three to five times its usual size. This condition is known as uvulitis. It can cause:

  • A choking or gagging sensation, even though no foreign matter is present.
  • Snoring or sleep apnea, temporary stops in nighttime (or even daytime) breathing that are interrupted with a "snort" as the lungs struggle to get air out.
  • Mild to severe sore throat. When the swelling and/or inflammation of the uvula is due to allergy (in a condition sometimes called Quenke's edema), there may be no pain.
  • Fever.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Difficulty articulating r, b, m, and p sounds.

What can cause uvulitis? One of the more common causes of the condition over the past few years is marijuana smoking. The smoke dries out the membrane lining the uvula, and some of the "stinkier" components of the smoke can irritate it (although smokers may not care). In heavy pot smokers, the uvula will get a "pebble-like" appearance. Other parts of the throat will not be affected, although the gums may thicken and grow up over the teeth. This is most common in young men who smoke lots of marijuana. Smoking tobacco products isn't as irritating to the uvula as smoking marijuana.

Uvula piercings always cause uvula inflammation in the short term. The weight of the jewelry put in the uvula pulls it down and can cause snoring. If the ring gets loose, it can go down the throat, and have to be removed by surgery. Piercings can migrate to the center of the uvula and cause bisection, which may (or may not) make it easier for food or drink to go up the nose. 

Oral herpes infections can cause severe uvulitis, although it would be rare for the virus to cause inflammation just in the uvula. The uvula would tingle and sting for a day or two before it becomes swollen and painful. The most common treatment for a herpes outbreak of the throat is acyclovir.

Bacterial infections with Haemophilus influenzae or Streptococcus are a relatively rare cause of uvulitis. Once you get these infections, they are treated with antibiotics. However, you can help keep them from coming back by chewing sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol, which is toxic to the bacteria. The Lite and Sweet, Spry, Xyloclear, and Xylosweet brands contain the xylitol which keeps the bacteria from "rooting" in the lining of the uvula, so they are washed down the throat with food and drink.

Allergies that cause swelling of the uvula can be serious if they also cause swelling of the epiglottis, the flap of cartilage at the base of the tongue that protects the windpipe from food and drink. If both the uvula and the epiglottis swell at the same time, the result can be suffocation. If you ever even once have swelling of both the uvula and the epiglottis, see your doctor about carrying an Epi-Pen (or a lower cost equivalent) in case allergies recur. If you have milder symptoms, they may be managed with Benadryl.

What about low humidity as a cause of uvulitis? This is probably the very most common cause of the problem, but it's also the easiest to treat. Drink a glass of water, and dehydration-related inflammation of the uvula goes away.

Swelling and inflammation of the uvula don't have a single cause, and there isn't a single treatment that works for everyone. However, at least one of these treatments works for nearly everyone who has the problem--and recovery can be very straightforward.

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