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The Marvelous Epiglottis

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Drawing of pharyngeal anatomy, epiglottis

The epiglottis (eh-puh-glaa-tuhs) is a small, leaf-shaped structure found in your throat measuring approximately 7-9mm (0.28-0.35 inches). The base of the epiglottis attaches to the front of your voice box (also called your larynx) and projects upwards toward the base of your tongue. Normally, the epiglottis remains upright, much like an extended finger, allowing your voice box and airway through as you breathe.

Older, Asian gentlemen palpating throat
To better understand how the epiglottis moves, place your hands on your "Adam's Apple" (also known as voice box or larynx) then swallow.

When you eat, your body needs to direct the food & liquid away from your airway and toward your esophagus or “food tube.” Cue your epiglottis. As you swallow, your epiglottis acts as a flap, covering the opening to your airway to form a tight seal and preventing food and liquid from entering your lungs. Because your epiglottis is cartilage and not muscle, it relies on the strength of the muscles in the tongue and voice box to create enough passive pressure to bend your epiglottis over the entrance of your airway and to form a tight seal. The weight of what you’re eating and drinking also helps with this motion.

Because the entrance of your airways is sealed off, air is unable to flow in or out, leaving you both unable to breath or speak during a swallow. As you complete your swallow, the muscles in your throat, tongue, and voice box begin to relax and your epiglottis returns to its upright position.

The entrance to your airway is now open and breathing resumes. This lapse in breathing generally lasts around 0.5 to 1.5 seconds. In healthy adults, this pause in breathing has no negative effect even after the 500-700 swallows that typically occur in a day.

In adults with chronic heart and lung conditions such as CHF (congestive heart failure) or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), lapses in breathing can sometimes impact ability to eat meals in a safe and efficient manner. The sequence of events in a swallow are both complex and incredibly precise, and rely heavily on the timing of the respiratory system. When the respiratory system is already taxed due to chronic disease, it is easy for swallow events to happen out of sequence or occur with reduced strength. This includes the mis-timing of the opening and closing of the epiglottis and poor seal formation over the airway entrance. When the epiglottis does not function optimally, it creates the potential for food and liquid to enter into the lungs and increases the overall risk for pneumonia.

Speech Language Pathologists are specifically trained to assess and treat swallow disorders including epiglottic function to decrease risk for further illness and to protect the lungs from foreign substances.

For more information regarding swallowing and swallowing disorders reach out to us.


"The Marvelous Epiglottis" is part of an ongoing educational series related to voice and swallowing anatomy and function.



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