The roof of your mouth is comprised of two different sections – the hard palate, which is at the front of the mouth, and the soft palate which takes up the back of the roof of your mouth. Your uvula – that dangling thing that looks like a hanging water balloon – hangs from the center of the soft palate, just above the tongue. The flexible uvula is made of connective tissues, mucus membranes, and muscles. Its flexibility is what allows it to properly perform its functions.
There are times when the mucous membrane surrounding the uvula swell, causing the uvula itself to swell up to five times larger than normal. When this occurs, the uvula then touches the tongue and throat, this results in setting off the gag reflex towards the back of your mouth. People with a swollen uvula feel like they are gagging and choking, even though no foreign matter is blocking their throat. The end result is that these people have a lot of trouble breathing, eating and talking.
What Are The Functions Of The Uvula?
While we know that the uvula is important for speaking and swallowing, there are still places in Africa that remove the uvula as part of their ritualistic practices. Other cultures think removing the uvula provides therapeutic benefits. Modern science knows better. The uvula has many functions, it secretes a thin saliva which contains mucous and serous components; this saliva is constantly lubricating the back part of the mouth and throat. Some singers say that the uvula is what helps them produce the vibrato sound while singing.
The other functions of the uvula are:
- Swallowing: As you swallow your food, the uvula blocks the nose so that no food enters your nose; it then blocks your wind pipe so that no food goes into your lungs. Thus, the uvula is important for swallowing food and drink without choking on them. This might not sound like much of a function, but the uvula does prevent choking and helps us swallow correctly.
- Speech Articulation: To make sounds like G and K, the tongue needs to make contact with the soft palate. The soft palate and uvula work in harmony to produce guttural sounds. French, German, Hebrew, Arabic, Hmong and Ubykh are just a few of the many languages where uvular consonants are employed. The uvula is needed to make these sounds because they all originate from the back part of the tongue.
- Gag Reflex: Simply touching the soft palate or the uvula will set off the gag reflex, which may make you vomit. Doctors find that this reflex works better to induce vomiting than emetics do.
The uvula has many vital functions that it performs without us even thinking about it. Together with the soft palate, the uvula helps us swallow, talk and induce vomit. Although removing the uvula is not often done, there are cases where infections make it necessary to remove the uvula and tissues in the throat. People can live without an uvula, but swallowing and speaking become a bit harder to do.