What Causes a Swollen Uvula?

5 Reasons You May Experience a Swollen Uvula

Doctor checking for a throat infection.
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You can experience a swollen uvula, also known as uvulitis, as a result of your body's inflammatory response. Your uvula is a bell-shaped organ that hangs from your soft palate, or the back of roof of the mouth. The function of the uvula is not well understood, though some researchers believe it is a marker of human evolution. Some believe that It is to protect you while drinking with your head down and your body in a bent position.

Others believe that it was an adaptive mechanism to protect you from insects that would fly in the mouths of ancient people while running through the wild.

Regardless of the evolution of the uvula, it does play a role in speech and is capable of producing saliva, being composed of several types of tissue, including both muscular and glandular. The uvula also contributes to the sounds made when a person snores.

Symptoms

A swollen uvula, which is an uncommon disorder, may cause a variety of symptoms based upon the inflammation at and around the uvula. Swelling of the uvula without inflammation of other tissues and structures around the uvula is very rare. Symptoms associated with a swollen uvula may include:

A swollen uvula 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.

However, this surgery is generally only mildly successful, suggesting that the actual role the uvula plays in developing sleep apnea may be smaller than originally thought.

Causes

A swollen uvula may also be caused by the following conditions.

1. Infections

Infections of the throat may cause other tissues, and subsequently the uvula, to swell.

These infections can be bacterial or viral, and may include:

Epiglottitis is a rare and dangerous condition that usually occurs in children. It is caused by an infection that leads to swelling of the epiglottitis (a small flap of tissue attached to the end of the tongue) and surrounding structures, and can rapidly lead to breathing problems. If your doctor suspects epiglottitis, then they may not swab your throat, but send you to the emergency department to ensure that they can protect your airway and place a breathing tube if needed. If you are able to tolerate a CT scan, they may perform this to help diagnose epiglottitis.

In order to determine how to treat your swollen uvula, your doctor will swab your uvula and send the sample for culture. If the cause is bacterial, then your doctor can treat you with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and vaccination status (for children), your doctor may either prescribe oral antibiotics or IV antibiotics. If the culture is negative, then the cause is likely viral and antibiotics will not help.

2. Allergic Reactions

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. You may also be treated with an inhaled version of epinephrine called racemic epinephrine.

3. 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. The swelling will differentiate from many other causes of a swollen uvula because your uvula will not be erythematous (red), but will be white and swollen like a grape. Most people with this disorder experience their first attack during childhood.

4. Trauma

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 inserting a breathing tube (intubation). Complications from intubation are rare. Generally in the cases of trauma, suck on ice chips, or using local anesthetics will hep manage your symptoms.

5. Genetic Conditions

Certain genetic conditions may cause abnormalities of the uvula. 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.

Treatment Options

Treatment of a swollen uvula will vary based on the causes discussed.

  • infectious causes — treatment with antibiotics if bacterial
  • noninfectious causes — treatment of symptoms of sore throat by using throat lozenges, suck or chewing on ice chips, or using topical anesthetics like lidocaine.
  • breathing difficulties — epinephrine shot or inhaled epinephrine, IV steroids, and IV antihistamines

With proper treatment, you will usually recover from a swollen uvula without any long-lasting effects. Minor swelling of the uvula may go away on its own without medical treatment.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing an uncomplicated case of swollen uvula, drinking cold fluids, or sucking/eating ice chips may help ease your pain and 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 that will be based on the cause and severity of your swollen uvula.

Sources:

Finkelstein, Y, Meshorer, A, Talmi, YP, Zohar, Y, Brenner, J, & Gal, R. (1992). The Riddle of the Uvula. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 107(3):444-50.

Woods, CR. Clinical Features and Treatment of Uvulitis. http://www.uptodate.com (Subscription Required). Updated December 29, 2015.

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