Anatomy
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What Is an Epiglottis?

The epiglottis is a small, flexible flap at the root of your tongue, crucial for safe swallowing. It acts like a traffic cop, directing food and drink to your esophagus while ensuring your airways are clear for breathing. Intrigued by how this tiny structure plays a big role in your daily health? Discover its fascinating functions and importance in our full article.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An epiglottis is an anatomical structure that is designed to prevent animals from inhaling foods or liquids while they eat and swallow. You could think of it as a lid or flap which covers the trachea, creating a seal that does not permit anything other than air to enter the trachea. This anatomical structure is very important, as without it, an organism would run the risk of choking and coughing every time it tried to eat.

To use an analogy which may be familiar to you, the epiglottis is a lot like a toilet seat attached to the root of the tongue. During normal activities, it is left in the up position, allowing air to flow freely into the larynx and trachea. However, when an organism starts eating, the epiglottis snaps shut, covering the opening into the trachea. When the organism is done swallowing, the flap pops back up again to allow the organism to breathe.

The hyoid bone triggers movement of the epiglottis during swallowing.
The hyoid bone triggers movement of the epiglottis during swallowing.

The function of the epiglottis is made possible by the fact that it is made from elastic cartilage. Cartilage is typically very stiff, but elastic cartilage tissue is made up of tiny bundles of extremely elastic fibers which make it flexible as well as sturdy. When coated with mucus membranes, as in the case of this structure, elastic cartilage tissue is soft enough to form a tight seal, and stiff enough to hold up against the action of swallowing.

The epiglottis is meant to prevent people from choking while eating.
The epiglottis is meant to prevent people from choking while eating.

Movement of the epiglottis is triggered by movements of the hyoid bone during swallowing, which means that organisms do not need to learn to move it during swallowing, because they are born with the ability to do so. Because the structure is not controlled by brain activity, it is also not dependent on nerve signals; it's basically like a mechanized part that requires no real maintenance on the part of the user.

The epiglottis allows humans to eat without constantly choking and coughing.
The epiglottis allows humans to eat without constantly choking and coughing.

Sometimes, the epiglottis can become inflamed, in a situation known as epiglottitis. The inflammation causes the flap to swell, and this can potentially be extremely dangerous, as the swollen tissue may inhibit breathing. Prompt treatment is required for such inflammation to ensure that the patient will be able to breathe, and in some cases the patient may need to be intubated to secure his or her airway until the cause of the swelling can be resolved.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of an epiglottis?

An inflamed epiglottis typically requires prompt medical treatment.
An inflamed epiglottis typically requires prompt medical treatment.

At the base of the tongue, there is a little cartilage flap called the epiglottis. Its main purpose is to serve as the trachea's lid, preventing food and liquids from entering the lungs after swallowing. The epiglottis rises during swallowing to close off the tracheal entrance and create a one-way valve. This makes it possible for the lungs to receive just air and not food or drink. The epiglottis also contributes to the creation of speech sounds.

What happens if the epiglottis is damaged?

Intubation may be necessary if the epiglottis becomes inflamed.
Intubation may be necessary if the epiglottis becomes inflamed.

Damage to the epiglottis may result in a variety of problems. For instance, because food and liquids may more readily enter the lungs, it may cause trouble swallowing. Aspiration pneumonia, which is brought on by breathing in food or drink that is contaminated with germs, may also result from injury to the epiglottis. As the epiglottis is involved in voice production, damage to it may also result in vocal problems.

Is the epiglottis present in all mammals?

The epiglottis is attached to the root of the tongue.
The epiglottis is attached to the root of the tongue.

All mammals have an epiglottis. However, the size and form might vary from species to species. At the base of the tongue in humans, the epiglottis is a tiny cartilage flap that resembles a leaf. The epiglottis is bigger and more triangular in other animals like cats and dogs.

How does the epiglottis affect breathing?

The epiglottis is more closely associated with swallowing than breathing. The epiglottis raises to seal the trachea, or windpipe, opening during swallowing and acts as a one-way valve. This makes it more likely that the lungs will only receive air and not food or liquid. The intake of air does not involve the epiglottis.

Are there any medical conditions associated with the epiglottis?

The epiglottis may indeed be associated with a few medical issues. For instance, difficulties swallowing, aspiration pneumonia, and voice disorders may all result from epiglottis concerns. Moreover, epiglottitis is a disorder in which the epiglottis swells and becomes inflamed, making breathing difficult. Remember that epiglottitis is a severe illness that needs immediate medical care.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

pollick

When I was a child, my mother used to examine my mouth and throat for redness. I remember being fascinated by the little piece of skin dangling from the back of my throat. I had no idea it had a name or a real function. I remember how painful it could get when I had strep throat or a bad cold, however.

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    • The hyoid bone triggers movement of the epiglottis during swallowing.
      By: Alila Medical Media
      The hyoid bone triggers movement of the epiglottis during swallowing.
    • The epiglottis is meant to prevent people from choking while eating.
      By: nebari
      The epiglottis is meant to prevent people from choking while eating.
    • The epiglottis allows humans to eat without constantly choking and coughing.
      By: snapgalleria
      The epiglottis allows humans to eat without constantly choking and coughing.
    • An inflamed epiglottis typically requires prompt medical treatment.
      By: auremar
      An inflamed epiglottis typically requires prompt medical treatment.
    • Intubation may be necessary if the epiglottis becomes inflamed.
      By: beerkoff
      Intubation may be necessary if the epiglottis becomes inflamed.
    • The epiglottis is attached to the root of the tongue.
      By: stockshoppe
      The epiglottis is attached to the root of the tongue.