The uvula is a bell-shaped organ that hangs from the roof of the throat (the soft palate). The function of the uvula is not well understood, though some researchers believe it is a marker of human evolution. But the uvula, which plays a role in speech and is capable of producing saliva, is composed of several types of tissue, including both muscular and glandular. The uvula also contributes to the sounds made when a person snores, and may play a role in obstructive sleep apnea. Some individuals who suffer from sleep apnea have undergone a controversial surgery to have the uvula removed, called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) or uvulectomy. This surgery is marginally successful, suggesting that the actual role this structure plays in the development of sleep apnea may be smaller than we think.
A swollen uvula may cause difficulty swallowing, or even make it difficult to breathe. Other symptoms of a swollen uvula may include difficulty talking, pain, gagging or drooling. Usually a swollen uvula occurs when tissues around the uvula swell. Swelling of the uvula without other tissues and structures being affected is very rare. The conditions listed below may cause swelling of the uvula.
Infections of the throat may cause other tissues, and subsequently the uvula, to swell. These infections can be bacterial or viral, and may include strep throat, other infections that cause tonsillitis like mononucleosis, or epiglottitis.
Epiglottitis is a rare and dangerous condition that usually occurs in children. It is caused by an infection that leads to swelling of the epiglottis (a small flap of tissue attached to the end of the tongue) and surrounding structures, and can rapidly lead to breathing problems. For more information on epiglottitis, read: What is Epiglottitis.
Allergic reactions may cause swelling (edema) of the mouth and throat, including swelling of the uvula. This can be a sign of an anaphylactic reaction, which is an emergency. Individuals who experience rapid swelling of the mouth and throat should go to the nearest emergency room to get a shot of epinephrine. Some individuals who have experienced this kind of allergic reaction may carry epinephrine with them.
Hereditary Angioneurotic Edema
Hereditary angioneurotic edema (HANE) is a rare genetic disorder caused by a gene mutation. The condition causes attacks in which swelling in different areas of the body, including the uvula, can occur. Most people with this disorder experience their first attack during childhood.
Injuries to the uvula may cause it to swell, although as you may imagine, trauma to the uvula is not very common. It's possible to burn your uvula by eating hot food, and the uvula can also be damaged as the result of some medical procedures, such as the insertion of a breathing tube (intubation). Complications from this procedure are rare.
Certain genetic conditions may cause abnormalities of the uvula, including enlargement. Cleft lip/palate is a condition that affects the roof of the mouth (palate), causing the uvula to be absent or have other abnormalities. It's also possible to inherit an elongated uvula; an enlarged or elongated uvula that's inherited is not truly the same as a swollen uvula, though it can cause similar symptoms. If symptoms are troublesome, the uvula may have to be surgically removed.
Minor swelling of the uvula may go away on its own without medical treatment, and drinking cold fluids may also help the swelling to go down. But if the uvula swells enough so that you can't swallow, talk, or you have difficulty breathing, you should go to the nearest emergency room. Swelling can be treated with medications called corticosteroids, or epinephrine in the case of an allergic reaction. It's also desirable, if possible, that the underlying cause of the swelling be treated as well.
Medscape. Hereditary Angioedema Clinical Presentation. Accessed: November 26, 2012 from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/135604-clinical
Pubmed. The Riddle of the Uvula. Accessed: November 26, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1408233
Uptodate. Clinical Features and Treatment of Uvulitis. Accessed: November 26, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1408233