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What is the Oropharynx?

By Dulce Corazon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The oropharynx is a section of the pharynx, or throat, located at the back of the mouth. When the mouth is opened wide, the posterior oropharynx can usually be seen directly. Its front wall is mostly found at the base of the tongue, with the tonsils on each side, and the uvula and soft palate above it. The uvula is the fleshy, cone-shaped tissue that hangs from the back portion of the soft palate, or roof of the mouth. Other sections of the pharynx are the nasopharynx and the laryngopharynx.

The pharynx is an essential component of the respiratory and the digestive tracts. For most people, food and air passes through the pharynx before reaching the stomach and the lungs, respectively. Together with the mouth, it makes breathing, chewing, and swallowing foods possible. Any injury or obstruction in the oropharynx can be a life threatening situation.

Infection of the pharynx is called pharyngitis. It is usually caused by viruses, including the adenovirus, coronavirus, parainfluenzae virus, and rhinovirus, among many others. Patients with viral pharyngitis usually present with an ear ache, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, painful swallowing, fever, and body pains.

Bacteria can also cause pharyngitis. Some of these bacteria are Group A streptococcus, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, and Mycoplasma pneumoniae. Signs and symptoms generally seen in bacterial pharyngitis are fever, swollen lymph nodes, a red and itchy oropharynx, whitish spots in the throat, pain during swallowing and talking, muscle aches, and headaches.

Oropharynx, or oropharyngeal, cancers can also sometimes occur. The causes of oropharyngeal cancers are unknown, although smoking and drinking alcohol are two factors which can increase the risk for cancer growth. Since the oropharynx is mostly the passageway for food, drink, and air, long term exposure of the oropharynx to the harmful substances in smoke and alcohol can potentially promote cell changes which can lead to cancer formation.

Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include persistent pharyngitis, difficulty swallowing and talking, some changes in voice, the feeling of having a lump in the throat, and sudden weight loss even when there's no change in diet. In some cases, oropharyngeal cancers can spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones and the muscles. It can also spread to the neighboring tissues, including the jaw, tongue, and esophagus. Treatment generally includes either surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, or a combination of these, mostly depending on the stage of the cancer.

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Discussion Comments

By seag47 — On Jun 24, 2011

@wavy58 - Did you know that the uvula gets its name from the Latin word “uva,” which means grape? It was named this because of its rounded shape and the fact that it hangs.

By wavy58 — On Jun 23, 2011

So that hanging flap in the throat is called the uvula! I am glad to know this.

After reading about the oropharynx, I became curious about the function of the uvula. I discovered that the uvula contains a muscle that lets it change shape to fill up the empty space. It keeps food from taking a wrong turn and going down the breathing passageway when you swallow. I always wondered how the food knew which way to go!

The uvula also helps singers create vibrato. It also causes unpleasant snoring and sleep apnea. To treat these conditions, excess flesh is removed from both the uvula and its surrounding area. This surgery tightens the tissues, thereby opening up the upper air passageways.

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