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The epiglottis is a flap in the throat that keeps food from entering the windpipe and the lungs. The flap is made of elastic cartilage covered with a mucous membrane, attached to the entrance of the larynx. It projects obliquely upwards behind the tongue and the hyoid bone, pointing dorsally. It stands open during breathing, allowing air into the larynx. During swallowing, it closes to prevent aspiration and forcing the swallowed liquids or food to go along the esophagus instead. It is thus the valve that diverts passage to either the trachea or the esophagus.

Posterior view of the larynx. The epiglottis is the most superior structure shown.
PrecursorHypopharyngeal eminence [1][unreliable source?]
Anatomical terminology

The epiglottis gets its name from being above the glottis (epi- + glottis). There are taste buds on the epiglottis.[2]



The epiglottis is shaped somewhat like a leaf of purslane, with the stem attached to the internal surface of the thyroid cartilage.[3]

The epiglottis is one of nine cartilaginous structures that make up the larynx (voice box). During breathing, it lies completely within the larynx. During swallowing, it serves as part of the anterior of the pharynx.[citation needed]


The body of the epiglottis consists of elastic cartilage.

The epiglottis has two surfaces, a forward-facing surface facing the tongue, and a posterior surface facing the larynx.[3]

The entire lingual surface and the apical portion of the laryngeal surface (since it is vulnerable to abrasion due to its relation to the digestive tract)[citation needed] are covered by stratified squamous non-keratinized epithelium.[3] However, some parts of the laryngeal surface, which is in relation to the respiratory system, has respiratory epithelium: pseudostratified, ciliated columnar cells and mucus secreting goblet cells.[3]


The epiglottis arises from the fourth pharyngeal arch. It can be seen as a distinct structure later than the other cartilage of the pharynx, visible around the fifth month of development.[4]


A high rising epiglottis

A high-rising epiglottis is a normal anatomical variation, visible during an oral examination, which does not cause any serious problem apart from a mild sensation of a foreign body in the throat. It is seen more often in children than adults and does not need any medical or surgical intervention.[5]


The epiglottis is normally pointed upward during breathing with its underside functioning as part of the pharynx.[3] During swallowing, elevation of the hyoid bone draws the larynx upward; as a result, the epiglottis folds down to a more horizontal position, with its superior side functioning as part of the pharynx. In this manner, the epiglottis prevents food from going into the trachea and instead directs it to the esophagus, which is behind it.[citation needed] Swallowing with little to no aspiration of food can occur even when there is no epiglottis (such as when destroyed by disease).[3]

Cough reflexEdit

Should food or liquid enter the airway due to the epiglottis failing to close properly, the cough reflex may occur to protect the respiratory system and expel material from the airway.[6] Where there is impairment in laryngeal vestibule sensation, silent aspiration (entry of material to the airway that does not result in a cough reflex) may occur.[7]

Speech soundsEdit

In some languages, the epiglottis is used to produce epiglottal consonant speech sounds, though this sound-type is rather rare.

Clinical significanceEdit


Inflammation of the epiglottis is known as epiglottitis. Epiglottitis is mainly caused by Haemophilus influenzae. A person with epiglottitis may have a fever, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty breathing. For this reason, acute epiglottitis is considered a medical emergency, because of the risk of obstruction of the pharynx. Epiglottitis is often managed with antibiotics, racemic epinephrine (a sympathomimetic bronchodilator that is delivered by aerosol), and may require tracheal intubation or a tracheostomy if breathing is difficult.[8] Behind the root of the tongue is an epiglottic vallecula which is an important anatomical landmark in intubation.

The incidence of epiglottitis has decreased significantly in countries where vaccination against Haemophilus influenzae is administered.[9][10]


The epiglottis was first described by Aristotle, although the epiglottis' function was first defined by Vesalius in 1543. It also has Greek roots.[11]

Additional imagesEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Stevenson, Roger E. (2006). Human malformations and related anomalies. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516568-3.
  2. ^ Jowett, Adrian; Shrestha, Rajani (November 1998). "Mucosa and taste buds of the human epiglottis". Journal of Anatomy. 193 (4): 617–618. doi:10.1046/j.1469-7580.1998.19340617.x. PMC 1467887. PMID 10029195.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Standring S, Borley NR, eds. (2008). Gray's anatomy : the anatomical basis of clinical practice. Brown JL, Moore LA (40th ed.). London: Churchill Livingstone. ISBN 978-0-8089-2371-8.
  4. ^ Schoenwolf, Gary C.; et al. (2009). ""Development of the Urogenital system"". Larsen's human embryology (4th ed., Thoroughly rev. and updated. ed.). Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier. p. 362. ISBN 9780443068119.
  5. ^ Petkar N, Georgalas C, Bhattacharyya A (2007). "High-rising epiglottis in children: should it cause concern?". J Am Board Fam Med. 20 (5): 495–6. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2007.05.060212. PMID 17823468.
  6. ^ Widdicombe, J. (1 July 2006). "Cough: what's in a name?". European Respiratory Journal. 28 (1): 10–15. doi:10.1183/09031936.06.00096905. PMID 16816346.
  7. ^ Ramsey, Deborah; Smithard, David; Kalra, Lalit (13 December 2005). "Silent Aspiration: What Do We Know?". Dysphagia. 20 (3): 218–225. doi:10.1007/s00455-005-0018-9. PMID 16362510.
  8. ^ Nicki R. Colledge; Brian R. Walker; Stuart H. Ralston, eds. (2010). Davidson's principles and practice of medicine. illustrated by Robert Britton (21st ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier. p. 681. ISBN 978-0-7020-3084-0.
  9. ^ Reilly BK, Reddy SK, Verghese ST (April 2013). "Acute epiglottitis in the era of post-Haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB) vaccine". J Anesth. 27 (2): 316–7. doi:10.1007/s00540-012-1500-9. PMID 23076559.
  10. ^ Hermansen MN, Schmidt JH, Krug AH, Larsen K, Kristensen S (April 2014). "Low incidence of children with acute epiglottis after introduction of vaccination". Dan Med J. 61 (4): A4788. PMID 24814584.
  11. ^ Lydiatt DD, Bucher GS (March 2010). "The historical Latin and etymology of selected anatomical terms of the larynx". Clin Anat. 23 (2): 131–44. doi:10.1002/ca.20912. PMID 20069644.

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