Alice,

I wanted to know what the bell behind our throat is for. Does it have a purpose? Do we need it?

Dear Reader,

Your question is one that many ponder. The "bell" hanging above the entrance to your throat is called the uvula (pronounced you-vu-lah). This dangly body part gets its name from the Latin word uva, meaning grape and is made of muscles and connective tissue. The purpose of the uvula — not to be confused with your tonsils, (the pink masses of lymphoid tissue located on both sides at the back of the throat) — is kind of a mystery! There’s no hard answer to your question because learning more about what it does is still a developing area of research. Although researchers currently think that the uvula may play a critical role in saliva production and speech, there is a lack of consensus on its function or necessity in these and other areas. So, what is known? Read on to find out more!

Some researchers believe that this fleshy growth plays a role in the production of both saliva and certain antibodies that protect the throat from infection. This theory is supported by the fact that the uvula moves rapidly during speech, covering the surrounding throat wall with saliva. As you may imagine, this may act as a lubricant during speaking and swallowing. Other researchers believe that the uvula also blocks off the airway to the nose when you swallow, ensuring that food and drink go down the correct tube.

Another purpose of the uvula may be in speech and language. Some researchers theorize that because humans are the only mammals with one, the uvula’s primary purpose is for speech and can aid in making certain sounds that are used in many of the world's oldest languages. Certain guttural consonant sounds — which are speech sounds that come from the back of the throat like “k” and the hard “g” — in languages such as Arabic, French, German, Hebrew, and several Sub-Saharan African languages can only be correctly produced with the help of the uvula.

It may also be helpful to know that there can sometimes be medical issues with the uvula. An elongated or larger uvula can lead to loud snoring and sleep apnea. In addition to a naturally lengthy uvula in some people, it can swell and lengthen because of infections, injury, or a person’s environment. What can be done in these situations? A health care provider may prescribe antihistamines, steroid hormones, or antibiotics. An uvulectomy is sometimes recommended to correct these ailments, which is a procedure that partially or wholly removes this grape-like structure. In some cultures, they may also be removed because of the beliefs surrounding perceived abnormalities on the uvula. Whatever the reason may be, possible negative side effects of this type of surgery include persistent dry mouth and altered speech — which tend to be more severe when the whole uvula is removed. For more information about inflammation of the uvula, check out Swollen uvula (little thing that hangs in the back of your throat) in the Go Ask Alice! archives.

While there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the purpose of the uvula, it's recommended that as long as it's not causing any problems, that folks just leave it alone.

Sorry to leave you hanging without a clear answer (for now),

Alice!

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